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An Olympic Ice Storm

7 minute read

For more than a decade, coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva have been the go-to taskmasters of ice dancing. He made the U.S. relevant by demanding that athletes stop treating ice dancing as an also-ran event; she insisted on seemingly impossible precision moves and conditioning to turn dancers into athletes. Together, their renown has helped them attract the sport’s top talent, including nearly half a dozen teams who are contenders for a medal in Sochi. Together, they became the winningest coaching team in U.S. ice-dancing history. Considering the turnaround that has occurred under their guidance, the 2014 Games should be a shining moment for the duo.

Except for one problem: they aren’t talking to each other.

In a very public–and poorly timed–professional breakup, Shpilband and Zoueva parted company in 2012. The dispute has become the defining drama of ice dancing for this Olympics–no small accomplishment in this oft-derided soap opera of a sport that in past years has seen love triangles between competing teams. He was fired from the Canton, Mich., rink where the two had worked since 2003, while Zoueva remained. “She not exist for me,” says Shpilband in Russian-accented English.

As a result, dance duos who had logged thousands of hours on the ice with Shpilband and Zoueva were forced to choose sides just a year before the Games. The athletes–including six-time national champions and gold-medal favorites Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who chose to train with Zoueva–say they are ready to compete. But there is no question that they and all the other skaters affected by the split will take the ice in the shadow of the squabble. Depending on how the marks and medals are handed out, Sochi could vindicate one coach or the other–or if the U.S. falls flat, the battle between these two big-name coaches could become the scapegoat.

Ice dancing first became a medal sport at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. Meant to highlight the more precise, technical bladework required to translate familiar ballroom styles like the quick step and European waltz to the ice, it lacked the wow factor of figure skating’s spectacular jumps and dizzying spins. So it was no surprise that few skaters (and more important, few parents of young skaters) in the U.S. were clamoring to be Fred and Ginger on ice. After earning a bronze at Innsbruck, the U.S. entered a 20-year stretch with no medals, while East European skaters, who benefited from a long cultural history in dance, dominated with dramatic storytelling and technical skill. In the U.S., dance became the sideshow for skaters who couldn’t make it in singles or pairs.

Shpilband, an affable Russian with close-cropped dark blond hair and the ruddy complexion of someone who spends a lot of time in cold rinks, was a prime force in changing that. In 1990, when he was touring as a skater (with ice-dance legends Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean), Shpilband and four others, including his soon-to-be first wife, defected from the Soviet Union. They left their hotel room in New York with nothing but their skates and cameras in order to avoid suspicion. “None of them spoke English,” says Johnny Johns, then skating director of the Detroit Figure Skating Club, who had been looking for ice-dance coaches to fill out his roster. Impressed by their résumés, Johns took them in.

Shpilband skated professionally in shows, but to help him earn more money, Johns and other coaches threw him some young students to work with. Transplanted from a country that had won seven of the 10 Olympic golds awarded in ice dancing, Shpilband was blissfully ignorant of the American perceptions of the sport and set about training his young charges to become future champions. “U.S. ice dancers needed to be more theatrical, more out there and over the top,” says Judy Blumberg, who competed for the U.S. in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. Shpilband brought that desperately needed quality to American teams–as well as a strict training ethic. “He had a Russian approach, and he wouldn’t say, ‘That was O.K.,’ ” says Ben Agosto, whom Shpilband paired with Tanith Belbin and guided to a silver in 2006, the U.S.’s first Olympic ice dancing medal in 20 years. “He’d say, ‘That wasn’t good enough.’ ”

A turning point in the sport came in 2001, when Shpilband and Johns invited Zoueva to join the increasingly popular program. It was a shrewd move that coincided with a change in rules that made the judging of ice dance more objective. Zoueva, a former junior ice dancer who hailed from the same Red Army Skating Club in Moscow where Shpilband trained, was a perfect match for him in mind-set and vision. Best known for her work with Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, the elegant pairs team and two-time Olympic figure-skating champs, she brought a creative flair to the coaching and choreography and a laserlike focus on conditioning and off-ice training. She and Shpilband consulted with acrobats from Cirque du Soleil to mastermind breathtaking lifts and invited dance specialists to give their skaters’ programs the authenticity and memorable moments that judges rewarded.

As Shpilband and Zoueva’s success grew, so did demands on their time. In 2003 they moved their program 30 miles (48 km) west to Arctic Edge Arena in the Detroit suburb of Canton, where daily, dedicated time for ice dancing was available. Joining them at their new facility were Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (whom the two guided to Olympic gold in 2010), as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates and the up-and-coming brother-sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani.

There was also Meryl Davis and Charlie White, hoping to outdance the Canadians to win the U.S.’s first gold in the event. Davis had never danced before when she was paired with White in 1997. “I’m not going to lie, I was a little put off that she didn’t know anything about ice dance, since I was already on the European waltz,” White jokes about their first encounters. But Davis, also a singles skater, immediately took to dance, which meant having a partner and a hand to hold. “I hated skating by myself,” says Davis. Having White on the ice with her helped calm the butterflies and make competing bearable, even enjoyable.

By then, Shpilband and Zoueva had made a virtue of having multiple top teams under their wing. “We never second-guessed the value of training with our competition,” says Belbin, who shared ice time with her rivals during the 2000s. The lineups for training sessions looked like a world championship. The medalists for the 2011 Worlds, in fact, all trained in Canton: Davis and White (gold), Virtue and Moir (silver) and the Shibutanis (bronze).

But while the skaters were making history together, Shpilband and Zoueva’s relationship started to come apart in 2012. Zoueva told the skaters that Shpilband wanted to coach students exclusively and that that would affect their training and ice time. Shpilband denies this and says he was blindsided by the questions about his commitment and dedication to his students. He says that Zoueva was scheduling training sessions without consulting him and that there were “lots of lies in the story–people and skaters [got] manipulated.”

As the coaches continued to feud–including in a public argument in the arena’s lobby–the rink’s management asked Davis and White whom they would choose if the coaches split. They chose Zoueva, so Shpilband was fired. He sued, Davis and White were deposed, and although the case was settled, the bitter feelings remain. “I don’t have any relationship with her,” Shpilband says.

Only Chock and Bates opted to move one suburb north with Shpilband to the Novi Ice Arena, and they said their training didn’t miss a beat. The skaters who stayed with Zoueva have been mum about the split but are still on good terms with Shpilband. “I don’t regret anything that I have done,” he says. “Life goes on. I’m really happy to see Meryl and Charlie and Tessa and Scott and the Shibutanis succeeding. We spend so many years together, and you give not just your time but your life and your passion. That’s not going away. I will always be cheering for them.”

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