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Russia Leaps Up Sochi Medals Table to Vanquish the Ghosts of Vancouver

Bobsleigh - Winter Olympics Day 10
Russian gold medalists Alexander Zubkov, left, and Alexei Voevoda celebrate after winning the two-man bobsleigh event at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 17, 2014 Alex Livesey—Getty Images

The party is warming up for the host team at the Winter Olympics

Eleven days into the Sochi Olympics, Russia finally broke into the upper echelons of the medals table on Monday with a surprise gold in the two-man bobsleigh event. The relief was palpable. For a week and a half, the host country was not even in the top five, and officials were getting worried that the ghosts of Vancouver, where Russia had its worst Winter Olympic showing ever in 2010, might still be dragging the athletes down. Now those fears have passed. With a total of 18 medals, five of them gold, Russia is now in second place in the overall tally, behind Germany but catching up fast. It already has two more gold medals than it took home at the end of the Games in 2010.

On Sunday night at Sochi’s seaport building, where the athletes go to unwind after competitions, the sense of redemption after Vancouver was already potent enough to make the Olympians start popping corks in celebration. Around midnight, six of the medalists got together for an old tradition: they dipped two of their medals into a jug of bubbly and then passed it around, taking big gulps from the communal chalice as if it were some ancient Grecian kylix. Asked afterward how it had tasted, Ksenia Stolbova, who won a silver medal last week in the pairs free-skating event, closed her eyes and said, “Divine,” drawing out the word as if to savor it.

(MORE: It’s Time to Get Over the ‘Miracle On Ice’)

That was a far cry from the mood at the seaport building on Feb. 6, the night before the opening ceremony, when the organizers staged a private party to kick off the Olympics. The celebrity guests at that event made a point to prepare reporters for the worst. “If we don’t perform well, please just don’t blame the athletes or the organizers,” said Iosif Kobzon, a famous Russian crooner. “There’s a lot of pressure on everyone. And we never promised to be the best.”

But on Sunday, the mood was good enough to bring back memories from the Olympic triumphs of the Soviet Union, which was a powerhouse in winter sports. Irina Rodnina, who won gold medals in figure skating for the Soviet team in three consecutive Winter Olympics — 1972, 1976 and 1980 — recalled that the champagne ritual was performed with a bit less flare in those days. It still went by the same name — obmyvanie, which means bathing or, more fancifully, ablution — but the term was used in a figurative sense in the frugal years under communism. “Back then, we didn’t have enough spare champagne to fill a whole bucket,” she told TIME. “So we drank from flutes, and you can’t fit a medal inside a flute.”

That ceased to be an issue in 2001, when the Russian apparel company Bosco Sport began dressing all of Russia’s Olympians. In Sochi, the firm set up this year’s Russian House in the luxuriously remodeled seaport building, which now boasts a nightclub decked out in red velvet with a view of the harbor full of yachts. More than a decade ago, at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the company’s managers were the ones who decided to take the ritual ablution of medals a lot more literally. “If you’re going to bathe, you have to bathe for real,” says the company’s president, Timur Guguberidze, who presided over the ceremony at the Russian House on Sunday.

(MORE: Russia’s Hockey Defeat Reopens Old Wounds)

So when the medalists were called up to the stage around midnight, a glass vase of champagne was poured out for them to bathe their medals. In a bit of an anticlimax, it turned out to be midshelf Italian prosecco, and only two of the athletes brought their medals for the alcoholic bath. “I didn’t want mine to get ruined,” says figure skater Maxim Trankov, who won gold in the pairs free-skating event on Feb. 12. “People keep asking to see it, to touch it. So I put it back in the box a few days ago and am keeping it hidden.”

The two medalists in the sport of skeleton, one the winner of a gold and the other of a bronze, turned out to be a bit less squeamish. But from the grimace on his face, it was hard to tell if Alexander Tretyakov, who won a gold medal in skeleton on Friday, was laughing or weeping as he dunked his treasure into the tub. “It had to be done,” Tretyakov told TIME afterward with a tired smile. “It’s a tradition.”

And even the athletes who didn’t get their medals sticky with prosecco got to sip from the chalice as it was passed around. Four of them then joined a banquet in the adjacent room, where a small group of Russian TV celebrities and politicians lined up to take pictures with them and continued drinking. The bad memories of the last Winter Games seemed as far away as Vancouver is from Sochi. But the guests were still careful not to jinx the final result. In the cautious words of Rodnina, who had the honor of lighting the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony 10 days earlier: “We still have a week to go.” And anything could happen.

MORE: Road to Redemption: Team Russia Seeks a Return to Glory After an Atrocious Vancouver Campaign

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Bode Miller Defends Reporter Who Brought Him to Tears

OLY-2014-SKI-ALPINE-SUPERG-MEN-PODIUM
US skier Bode Miller cries after the Men's Alpine Skiing Super-G at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 16, 2014. Alexander Klein—AFP/Getty Images

Christin Cooper criticized by fans for questioning Miller about his brother who died last year

An NBC reporter brought American skier Bode Miller to tears Sunday after he won the bronze medal in the Super-G, with what many thought were excessive questions about his brother’s death. But Miller has since jumped to the reporter’s defense.

Miller made history as the oldest alpine skiing medalist when he won his sixth Olympic medal Sunday. NBC had been closely following the Miller family throughout this Olympics.

But fans said NBC may have pushed Miller too far after his bronze finish, focusing on the skier’s loss of his brother, snowboarder Chelone (Chilly) Miller,who was 29 when he died of a seizure last year.

Christin Cooper, a two-time Olympian and silver medalist who works as an alpine skiing analyst for NBC, interviewed him before the medal ceremony.

Cooper began by asking Miller if this medal was different from his last five.

Miller: “This [medal] was a little different. I think, you know, my brother passing away — I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. So this was a little different.”

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?”

Miller: “A lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here. Just a though year.”

Cooper: “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly really experiencing these Games. How much does it mean to come with a great performance for him, or was it for him?”

Miller began to cry.

Miller: “It’s just a tough year. I don’t know if it’s really for him. I just wanted to come here and, I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.

Cooper: “When you’re looking up in the sky at the start… it just looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?”

Miller doubled over crying, blocking his face from the camera with his arm. Cooper quickly apologized and comforted Miller.

Miller took a moment to compose himself squatting on the ground, before his wife came and hugged him. The camera continued to follow him for over a minute as he grieved. Critics expressed their outrage on Twitter. Some even pointed to Cooper’s quickly-edited Wikipedia page.

But after the furor on Twitter, Miller defended Cooper Monday morning. He tweeted that the correspondent only asked the questions any journalist would have asked:

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Meryl Davis and Charlie White Win First Ice Dance Gold for U.S.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 10
Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States compete in the Figure Skating Ice Dance Free Dance at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 17, 2014 in Sochi. Clive Mason—Getty Images

The American team earned record-setting scores to reach the top spot on the medal stand

It only took 38 years, but the U.S. finally has a gold medal in ice dance.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, skating a technically challenging program as the Sultan and Scheherazade, tallied up the highest scores of the free dance event to win gold. Adding more erotic passion to their story-telling, the pair evidently captivated the judges with their speed and precision.

The pair beat their rivals and training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadians who hoped to repeat their 2010 Olympic victory but earned silver.

Both teams have said their unique training environment—sharing ice time and the same coach—is a motivator for their practices.

Davis and White set the bar high early in the competition, outscoring the Canadians during the inaugural team event and then setting a record score in the short dance to the quick step and foxtrot.

The Americans finished 2.56 points ahead of the Canadians by getting credit for performing skills with the highest level of difficulty and being rewarded for their skating skills in the tight traveling spins known as “twizzles”.

The Americans continued their dominance in the free skate, earning 116.63 points to the Canadians’ 114.66 to win their history-making gold. Adding in the short program scores, overall, Davis and White outscored Virtue and Moir by 4.53 points.

The bronze went to Russia’s up-and-coming duo Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, who enthralled the judges with their rendition of Swan Lake. Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Maia and Alex Shibutani finished eighth and ninth, respectively, establishing a strong foundation for U.S. ice dance for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Since the event became an Olympic sport at the 1976 Games, Eastern European teams, primarily from Russia, have dominated the podium. Virtue and Moir became the first North American team to win in 2010 in Vancouver. This is Team USA’s fourth ever medal in the event; Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns earned bronze in 1976, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto silver in 2006, and Davis and White skated to silver in 2010.

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Sochi’s Olympic Cathedral May Be Its Holiest White Elephant

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Christmas service at the Cathedral of the Holy Face of Christ the Savior in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 7, 2014.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Christmas service at the Cathedral of the Holy Face of Christ the Savior in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 7, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Wedged between railroad tracks and a freeway overpass, the Cathedral of the Holy Face of Christ the Savior has yet to find a congregation

On Jan. 7, exactly a month before the Winter Games in Sochi began, Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped by the host city’s new cathedral to attend Orthodox Christmas Mass. It seemed like a symbolic moment. In record time, Putin’s government had built an entire Olympic city, complete with stadiums, hotels, railroads and freeways, on a patch of swamp in Sochi’s suburbs. It was Putin’s little miracle, and what better place and time to celebrate than on Orthodox Christmas in Sochi’s new church? There were just a couple of problems.

The ornate Cathedral of the Holy Face of Christ the Savior, built mostly in the Byzantine style, was still under construction at the time. It had been consecrated only a few days earlier, before the altar had been assembled. And then there was the issue of its location. Wedged between railroad tracks and a freeway overpass, the church was nearly impossible for any locals to approach by foot without jumping fences and running across several lanes of traffic. So people had to be bussed in to stand behind Putin and his key Olympic managers during the Christmas Mass. With that, the cathedral served its first essential function — a photo opportunity for Putin. But whom it will serve when the Olympics leave town is so far a bit of a mystery.

“There’s an old Russian tradition that when you make a conquest of land, the first thing you do, before building a fort or a bathhouse, is build a church on top of it,” says Vasili Gromov, an amateur historian and restorer of Orthodox churches in the region of Krasnodar, which includes Sochi. “But this one doesn’t make much sense.”

On the second Sunday of the Olympics, Gromov, who is 76, came early to the evening Mass to voice some concerns to the priests. How could they put such a massive cathedral in a place where people can’t get to it? “I circled around for an hour before I figured out how to get here,” says Gromov. “There are fences and freeways everywhere,” he says. “It’s like a maze!” So he was not surprised to see the cathedral nearly deserted during the long evening service, with never more than a dozen parishioners at a time, most of them Olympic tourists. “And who’s going to come here when the Games are over?” Gromov asks.

(MORE: Sochi’s Sixth Ring)

TIME put that question to the cathedral’s abbot in January, a jolly old priest named Father Flavian, who is prone to bouts of giggling that make him place his hand over his mouth. He did not have any great answers. The church, he explained, was not really part of the original Olympic project; it was conceived as an afterthought a year before the Games began, the holy icing on the Olympic cake. “It’s a miracle that we even built it in time,” he said. “We only had four months to cover the whole interior in frescoes, which is some kind of Olympic record!” (Indeed, when two reporters visited on Jan. 17, workers on scaffolds were still painting the final touches.)

But with all the rush, few considered the placement of the church or its functionality. “I know, it’s true, it’s really hard to get here,” Father Flavian admitted. “We’re pretty much on an island.” Then, as another fit of chuckles started coming on, he added, “When I visit Moscow and the higher clergy asks me where I’m from, I tell them I work out on the bogs.”

That is technically true. Just like the stadiums hosting the Olympic Games, the church rests on marshlands in a suburb of Sochi called Adler, right on the Black Sea coast, and its lack of solid bedrock has bedeviled the organizers from the beginning. The ground was so moist and unstable that Olympic buildings had to be redesigned several times, contributing to the massive cost overruns that eventually brought the overall price tag to around $50 billion — more than all the previous Winter Olympics combined.

The result is undoubtedly impressive — but impressive enough to justify the costs? Only time will tell. So far, the Olympic Park that houses the stadiums feels like a fantasy land, the kind you might get if architecture students put all their final projects on a table and waved a magic wand to make them real. On Saturday, when the weather was fine, tens of thousands of tourists wandered dumbstruck among them, photographing everything in sight. But it was hard not to think about what Russia’s Olympic Oz will look like when the Games and the tourists are gone. Sochi, already the record holder for the most expensive Games, may get another dubious honor: home to the greatest arrangement of white elephants on the planet.

The stadiums, of course, will be used in the future to host sports tournaments, conferences and summits. But beyond abiding by Russian tradition, it’s hard to see the future function of this enormous church. Even during the Olympics, attendance has been dismal. “It hurt me to see it,” says Gromov, who works on the restoration of churches near Sochi that were destroyed in Soviet times. “They’ve banished it so far, even the athletes can’t come to pray.”

(MORE: Olympic Oracles: A Rat, Rabbit and Otters Predict Sochi Results)

That wasn’t totally true. One of the volunteers of the Olympic organizing committee, Lina Balciunaite, who is from Lithuania, has been put in charge of shepherding athletes to the cathedral in search of an Orthodox blessing before their competitions. On Sunday, she took a pair of Georgians on the trek, but after parking their car on the other side of the freeway, it took them half an hour to walk the rest of the way. “Inside the Olympic Village we have a multiconfessional center for prayer,” she said. “But it looks like an office more than a church. So some Orthodox Christians have asked if there’s a real cathedral around, mostly Ukrainians or athletes from Kazakhstan.” In total, she said, there have been about six.

And what about when they’re gone? Not to worry. Father Flavian has a plan. He says the cathedral’s island of property between the railroad tracks and the overpass will also be home to a “cultural and historical” center for international religious congresses. There will be a hotel on the grounds, a restaurant where newlyweds can have their wedding receptions, a business center with office space, and a conference hall for 350 people.

“The Lord never frowned on entrepreneurship,” said the priest with another smile. The money for all this, he said, is meant to come mostly from the regional government, assuming it will have much to spare on developing Sochi after all the treasure it’s already poured into the Games. So far, there are no guarantees. “We are petitioning for assistance,” said Father Flavian. “And praying to the Lord.”

When the Olympics pass, he also hopes people will at least start making the hour-long trip from the city of Sochi for the high holidays, if not for Sunday Mass. “People just aren’t used to us being here yet,” he said. Only a few diehards made it to the evening service from Sochi on Sunday, among them Pavel Dranichnikov, an engineer with a handlebar mustache who works on the railroads. “Wherever my work sends me,” he said, “I always visit the local church. I’ll walk 10 to 20 km if that’s what it takes.”

But others may lack that abundance of zeal. Even if one does make it to the church from the Olympic venues, the best way to walk back goes right over a busy freeway, where a lone policeman named Aleksandr Tkachev was directing pedestrians on Sunday. “Most people coming from the church just walk this way,” he told me, pointing to the right lane of traffic. “It’s not very safe, but there’s no pedestrian walkway to get where you’re going.” For a few moments, no cars came into view, so this reporter ran directly into traffic, comforted only slightly by the recent blessings of Father Flavian.

MORE: No Beer, No Smokes: Olympic Spirit Challenges Old Russian Habits

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Must-see Photos From Day 11 of the Sochi Olympics

From snowboarding to figure skating, highlights from Day 11

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Listen To The Jamaican Bobsled Team’s Catchy New Theme Song

Tune apparently syncs perfectly with the Olympic bobsled course itself

+ READ ARTICLE

After a 12-year hiatus, the Jamaican bobsled team has returned to the Winter Olympics, and this time around they’ve got an awesome new theme song. The catchy reggae tune is called, naturally, “The Bobsled Song,” and it was specially designed to sync with Sochi’s bobsled course.

The team will compete today, Sunday Feb. 16, so be sure to hit “play” right as they begin.

Of course, no Jamaican bobsled song could ever top the classic tune from Cool Runnings:

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Russia’s Hockey Defeat Reopens Old Wounds

Mutual respect between Russian and American spectators ruled at the Olympic stadium... until the U.S. won

On Saturday, a game of hockey handed the U.S. and Russia a rare chance to ease the history of mistrust between them. That chance was missed.

When the stands cleared out of the Olympic stadium in Sochi that evening, most Russian fans came away feeling cheated. Their team would have won the crucial match on their home turf had the officials—one of whom was an American—not disallowed a Russian goal in the final period. So when that decision cost Russia the game, the old grudges and conspiracy theories began to bubble up again. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Certainly not the players. But the way the game ended was especially painful in light of how it began.

In the first period, the stadium’s main camera zoomed in on two brawny men, both wearing Viking helmets and warpaint of the Russian tricolor, and both screaming their heads off for Team Russia. Just behind them in the stands, a contingent of about a hundred American fans were doing the same for their team, and they were all getting along beautifully. “Both sides are playing their hearts out,” said one of the Vikings, Vladimir Lomaev, a Sochi native, when the first period ended. “And if anybody starts yelling ‘Yankee, go home!’ then I’ll go over there and shut them up myself.”

That sense of respect, if not outright affection, filled the stands in the the Bolshoi Ice Dome on Saturday. Nobody booed the opposing team or heckled the rival fans, at least not until the heart-stopping shootout that broke the tied score after overtime. “The trash-talking is way worse in Canada,” said Woody Groves, a 28-year-old hockey fanatic who came from Wisconsin just to attend the Olympic tournament in Sochi. It was his third visit to Russia, he said, “And this is the nicest I’ve ever seen a big group of Russians in one place. No question they have put on their best faces for this.”

And he was right. The Russian fans came to the game on Saturday not only to support their team but to break through some of the tensions and stereotypes left over from the Cold War. The two Vikings, both 47, had served together on the same Soviet nuclear submarine in the late 1980s. “Our vessel used to swim up to Los Angeles on patrols,” says the other Viking, Vladimir Vorozheykin. “All our lives it was pounded into our heads that America is the ultimate enemy.” Now his two children both study in the U.S., and he often travels there to visit them. “We have nothing but love for America,” his friend Lomaev broke in. “Please write that in your magazine.”

But when the tie-breaker handed the win to Team USA, the sense of brotherly love was quickly drowned in accusations. Even the head coach of the U.S. team admitted that the disallowed Russian goal had looked fair to him. “I was pretty sure the puck had gone in the net,” coach Dan Bylsma said at a press briefing after the game. “I didn’t get an explanation for the no-goal call, so I’m not sure what the reasoning was.” At the same briefing, the coach of the Russian team called the decision a “mistake,” but said he had no plans to contest it.

Many of fans who had watched the game at home then took to Twitter to voice their frustration. “Shame on the team of that country, which can’t beat us without help from the judge,” wrote Alyona Arshinova, an official from the ruling political party of President Vladimir Putin. “They think they won,” wrote Bekkhan Agaev, a lawmaker in parliament for Putin’s party. “We are acting like we lost. But the facts speak for themselves! There was a third goal” for Team Russia.

So far, Putin has not commented on the loss, but when the camera zoomed in on his reaction to the final score, it looked like he had just swallowed a puck. As the fans filed out of the stadium, somber and confused, it was hard to recognize them as the same 10,000 people who had been smiling and dancing in the stands an hour earlier. One young fan, who wore a Soviet flag wrapped around his shoulders, wasn’t even alive under the Soviet Union, but he seemed to carry its grudges. “Nothing is forgotten,” Anton Ivanov, a 16-year-old Sochi native, said through his teeth near the exit. “The Soviet Union is gone. We lost the Cold War. But nothing is forgotten.”

Even the Vikings were not in the mood to be sportsmanlike. What confused them most, they said after the game, was the fact that the crowd was not shown any replays of the disallowed goal during the game. During Russia’s match against Slovenia on Friday, there were several contested goals, Lomaev said, and each time they showed the replays several times to explain the officials’ decision. “This time they showed us nothing, even though we all saw that the goal was there,” he said. “Does that hurt? You’re damn right that hurts. But at least we have nothing to be ashamed of. We played a brilliant game.” He no longer had the same compliments for Team America.

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Must-see Images from Sochi Olympics: Day 10

Team USA defeats Russia in men's hockey prelim and other highlights from Day 10

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Meet Team USA: Maia and Alex Shibutani

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani skate in the dance short program during the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 10, 2014 in Boston. Matthew Stockman—Getty Images

The ice dancing brother and sister have a habit of skating their way to the top

Mac and Cheese. That’s what their first coach called them, mainly because Alex Shibutani had a habit of turning to the judges and flashing an exuberant grin, even if it meant not looking where he was going.

He’s still a bit of a ham, but now those smiles will be directed at the Olympic judges in Sochi. It’s been a long journey for Alex and his sister Maia, one of seven sibling sets competing for the U.S. at the Games, and it’s an odyssey that they’ve taken as a family.

It was Maia who started skating first, seeing it as the perfect way to express what she heard, every day at home, in music. Parents Naomi and Chris Shibutani, both former competitive musicians (she’s a pianist, he’s a flutist), always had some kind of music playing when the family was getting ready for dinner at their home, first in Boston, then in Connecticut – classical, jazz, contemporary, it didn’t matter.

After Maia learned to skate at birthday parties, she took to freestyling on the ice to lengthy CDs that Naomi put together for her. An early favorite was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score; tiny six-year-old Maia would think nothing of skating for 20 minutes straight to the soaring music, making everything up as she went. “People who saw her would ask, ‘Who choreographed a 20-minute program for a six-year-old?’” says Chris.

MORE: Russian Skating Icon Evgeni Plushenko Pulls Out of Olympics

For Maia, the Olympics very quickly became a goal. As soon as she could understand what the Olympics were, says Chris, she worked out when she would be old enough to compete. 2014 became the magic number. “Everything has been to pursue this dream for them,” says Naomi. “To the point that email passwords involved the number 2014.”

Soon after Maia started skating, older brother Alex did too, at first just tagging along to the rinks in Greenwich, New York and New Jersey, wherever there were coaches and ice time available. Alex entertained himself with homework or by fishing for lost change behind the skate benches. At the time, he was obsessed with Michael Jordan and basketball, and papered his bedroom walls with posters and baskets so he could practice dunks, not forgetting Jordan’s trademark tongue hanging to the side of his mouth as he grabbed some air. But given the choice between homework and skating, not surprisingly, he chose the latter, and joined Maia as a singles skater.

MORE: Lessons from The Team Event: Why It’s Tough to Be a Skater If You’re Not From Russia

It wasn’t until Alex had to pick up a team sport for his school PE requirement that Naomi thought of putting them together as a dance team. “[Their coach] said as long as they could hold hands and not kill each other, they could try it,” says Chris.

They giggled, thought it was fun and funny, and within a few months were catching the eye of Susan Kelley and Andrew Stroukoff, who competed for the U.S. in the first Olympic ice dance competition in 1976. Kelley thought the brother-sister duo could finish in the top five at juvenile nationals that year.

Apparently, he had an eye for talent. The Shibutani siblings, known as the Shib Sibs, finished second.

By then, the Maia and Alex were taking lessons from Slavka Kohout, a legendary figure skating coach who trained five-time U.S. national champion Janet Lynn. Lynn, thanks to Kohout’s meticulous focus on basic skills and strong edges, was known as a technically precise skater, and that same attention to the blade helped the Shibutanis to stand apart from their peers.

“It was all about the fundamentals of skating, and learning the edges,” says Naomi.

As elite musicians who traveled for competitions, and understood the value of experiencing great talent in person, she and Chris took their children to elite level skating competitions whenever they could. When the world championships came to Washington, D.C., the family had rink side seats. “We were right by the ice, and we felt all the teams skating around and creating this vortex of wind as they went by,” says Alex. “That was so impressive for us, being nine and 12.”

MORE: Team USA Should Be Totally Stoked By Extreme Olympics Sports

After a practice session at the event, the siblings had their first encounter with Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, then an up-and-coming U.S. dance team who finished fifth at the competition and would go on to earn the U.S.’ first Olympic medal, a silver, in 20 years at the 2006 Games. “They were our idols; we got their autographs at that competition, and they were so friendly. I’m sure they had places to go, and people to see and a competition to prepare for, but they made themselves readily available to two young kids,” says Alex.

As the siblings’ talent became obvious, their coach suggested they take advantage of summer development camps at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, a skating training mecca, particularly for novice and junior skaters. “The first time we got to the World Arena, their eyes went wide,” says Chris. There, in one chilly arena, was everything Maia and Alex wanted – top level coaches, including Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean, elite competitors, and tons and tons of ice time.

For Chris and Naomi, however, it meant an end to their own dream. The couple had just purchased a home in Greenwich, the one in which they planned on spending the rest of their lives. “This was the house they Maia and Alex were going to come home to during Thanksgiving break from college, and we were going to live in for 30 years, just like our parents did in their generation,” says Chris.

MORE: U.S. Ice Dancers Win Record Sixth National Title

But when their children started beating ice dance teams that had won at nationals the year before, the Shibutanis knew that Colorado Springs was where they had to be to realize their potential. They sold the house, and Chris, an anesthesiologist who earned a business degree and was then working at JPMorgan in New York; started catching JetBlue flights out of JFK Airport on Thursdays; flying to Denver; driving an hour-and-a-half; spending the weekend with the family; and flying back on Sunday. “I was a regular at JFK,” he says of the weekly trips he took for two years. “There something wonderful and pathetic about being recognized at JetBlue, Starbucks and the rental car agency.”

When the Shib sibs’ talent outgrew Colorado Springs, they auditioned in 2007 for coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva at the Arctic Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan. Shpilband had put together Belbin and Agosto, and with Zoueva was attracting the top ice dance teams from around the world, including reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from Canada, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. “They are very unique, super unique,” says Zoueva of the brother-sister pair. “The way they feel the music, they feel it with their body and soul, and they can express what they feel.”

MORE: An Olympic Ice Storm

As brother and sister, they also have an uncanny unison that earns points from the judges. At their first senior world championships, in 2011, they shot straight to the podium, earning a bronze.

This season, they intentionally chose to skate to a medley of Michael Jackson hits for their free dance, in an effort to attract younger fans to ice dance. “People have stereotypes of turning on the television and watching figure skating – ‘oh, it’s going to be something to opera, or some music I don’t really connect with,’” says Alex. “We are trying to connect with the person who is turning on the TV, didn’t know there was figure skating on, and trying to get them to stay on that channel.”

To prepare their Jackson tribute, they flew to Los Angeles to work with Jackson’s choreographers Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, and result is a routine that never fails to get audiences dancing along with them.

Training at the same rink with the top teams in the world is also a huge motivator for the Shibutanis. “We see it as a competitive advantage for us to train with them,” says Maia of their practice sessions on the ice, which are more like the warmups for the world championships.

While the siblings were first a bit awestruck by training with these teams – they stuck to a small corner of the rink at their first practice until Moir came over and told them that they had as much right to the full ice as the world and Olympic champs – Maia and Alex can now quick step, foxtrot and moon dance with the best of them, and represent the bright future of American ice dance.

TIME russia

It’s Time to Get Over the ‘Miracle On Ice’

The U.S ice hockey team rushes toward goalie Jim Craig after their upset win over the Soviet Union in the semi-final round of the XIII Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 22, 1980.
The U.S ice hockey team rushes toward goalie Jim Craig after their upset win over the Soviet Union in the semi-final round of the XIII Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 22, 1980. AP

As the U.S. men's hockey team gets ready to play Russia at Sochi, Cold War clichés dominate conversation

Halfway through the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia’s Foreign Minister got so fed up with all the bad press that he decided to take up his pen and react. “In the Western media,” Sergei Lavrov wrote in an op-ed published Thursday, Feb. 13, in Russia’s Kommersant daily, “a campaign of anti-Russian information has been launched, using terminology that is in the spirit of the Cold War.” Then, for nearly 2500 words, he went on to eviscerate the West for its old-think biases. But if he felt the media was beating the dust out of the Iron Curtain before, he should brace himself for this weekend.

On Saturday, Russia and the U.S. will face off in an Olympic hockey match that is, in some fairly superficial ways, reminiscent of the so-called “Miracle on Ice” – the epic game between the U.S. and Soviet Union (not Russia) during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. In the American imagination, that game provided one of the defining narratives of the Cold War. A ragtag bunch of American college kids defeated the honed professionals of the Soviet hockey machine, who had dominated the Olympic hockey tournament for decades.

No less than three American films have been made about that upset, the first one only a year after the game was played and most recently the 2004 version from Walt Disney. It was a great story. But it has nothing to do with Saturday’s match. “Folks need to get over it,” says Vyacheslav Fetisov, the Russian hockey legend who, as a 21-year-old defenseman, played on the losing end of the Miracle on Ice. “There is really just no parallel to be made,” he tells TIME.

But at a press conference two days before the game, the members of Team USA had to deflect a stream of questions trying to tease out even the slightest parallel. “Look, guys, I wasn’t even born yet,” said T.J. Oshie, a 27-year-old center for the St. Louis Blues. “I’m not really a 100% sure on the history of all that.” But do you remember hearing about it, a reporter persisted, maybe from uncles or grandfathers? “Yeah, they talked about. But I was just a young kid,” said Oshie “I remember watching the movies.” So does the history come into play for the team at all, asked another American reporter. “You know,” said Oshie. “I really don’t think so.” It went on like that for half an hour.

In the professional sporting press, references to the Miracle on Ice have become a grating cliché, much more likely to inspire a cringe in the context of Sochi than a wistful stare into the distance. Gregg Krupa, who covers the Red Wings for the Detroit News, says that mentioning today’s political climate as some kind of motivator for any of the hockey players in Sochi would just be misleading.

During the Winter Games of 1980, the Cold War was at one of its tensest moments. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. The United States was about to elect Ronald Reagan as President. The long period of detente between the two superpowers was being abandoned. “It was a Cold War game,” Krupa says. “Today, these guys all hang out in the States and Canada with each other, playing hockey and raising families together.”

Fetisov, now a member of the Russia’s upper house of parliament, was one of the players who broke down the barriers to make that possible. In the late 1980s, he began pushing the Soviet government to let him play in the NHL, and he was threatened in response with banishment to the Ukrainian minor leagues. Only when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse was he allowed to play abroad, and he went on to win two Stanley Cup trophies in a row for the Red Wings in 1997-1998. Following in his footsteps, most of the players on the Russian national team today also play for the NHL, including the team captain, Pavel Datsyuk, who also plays for the Red Wings.

“I don’t know what the comparisons are motivated by, but they just don’t make sense,” says Fetisov. “It’s a different game, a different world we’re living in. The Soviet Union is gone.”

That is the message that Russia’s government has been trying to get across in these Olympics, and many of the officials involved have said they are succeeding. Konstantin Ernst, who designed the opening ceremony, said afterward that it had shown, “the real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the Cold War.” To drive home the point, President Vladimir Putin visited the American House in Sochi’s Olympic village on the eve of Saturday’s game.

So it’s little wonder that parallels drawn in the media between that game and the Miracle on Ice – and between Russia and the Soviet Union – have gotten officials so upset. It seems to have the same effect on some of the players in Team USA. “We’re just out there playing hockey,” says David Backes, captain of the St. Louis Blues. “Whether that solves any of the political tensions, I doubt it. But really what we want to do is write our own chapter on Saturday.” After 34 years, maybe they can even close the book.

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