By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/23/2006 6:31:43 PM ET 2006-02-23T23:31:43

With a record seven European championships, two world titles, and an Olympic silver medal, Irina Slutskaya is now the gold medal favorite.

At 27, she is the grande dame of Olympic figure skating. She’s confident, theatrical and powerful on the ice, but off the ice, this Russian is a bit of a rebel — her pierced tongue is a sign of the spirit within.

No fragile ice princess, Slutskaya is a far more athletic skater than her American rivals and her virtuoso jumping is rewarded under the new scoring system.

“For me, don't think it's like, you know, I say, ‘Hey guys, ha, it's so easy, you know?’” Slutskaya says laughing. “It's like, it's not easy — it's still hard for me too.”

Even harder for her is life. She battles asthma, a bad knee and a condition caused vasculitis — an inflammation of blood vessels around the heart.

How does it affect her performance?

“Oh, well, I just can't walk,” she explains, laughing again. “I have bruises on my legs. They swell and I cannot step.”

It forced Slutskaya off the ice in 2003, temporarilycrashing her hopes.

Her home is Moscow, where she lives with her husband Sergei and winds down with friends.  But her first priority is her mom, who is seriously ill with kidney disease.

“We're too close,” Slutskaya says, “and if something happening with her, I feel it.”

Slutskaya needs to skate to pay for her mom's care and that puts competition in perspective. It’s also something that scares her.

“Yeah, when somebody goes sick, that's scary,” she says. “When something happen with your parents, it’s so scared to love somebody you know. But this is life, this is life, you know?”

Slutskaya dreams of one day being an actress, but first there is the frozen stage to conquer.

“Lots of people don't believe I can make it,” she says, “but I'm always believing this.”

And that gives this off-ice rebel another cause.

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