At last: Tobias granted Lithuanian citizenshipPath now clear for ice dancing duo to compete at Olympic Games
Isabella Tobias' phone was blowing up with text messages in the early hours of Monday morning.
"I was really scared. The last time, when I was denied citizenship, it was on a Monday morning," said ice dancer Isabella Tobias, 22, who represents Lithuania with partner Deividas Stagniunas, 28.
"Then I looked at my phone and everybody was saying 'Congratulations.' I immediately started crying my eyes out," she added.
Tobias and Stagniunas have skated together since 2010 and have had good results internationally, including a bronze medal at Skate America in 2011 and a ninth-place finish at Europeans in 2012. They placed 15th at the 2013 World Championships, which earned them a spot at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, but unlike for ISU competitions, citizenship is required for Olympic competition.
Tobias, who was born and raised in New York City, submitted an application for Lithuanian citizenship in October 2012. Last December, she had an interview before the citizenship committee, during which time she passed a language test. On Jan. 7, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite denied Tobias' application, citing that she had not demonstrated sufficient merit and stating that future merit could not be considered.
On Dec. 2, Grybauskaite took a different position, indicating in a statement that Tobias had now met the criteria for exceptional merit by having secured an Olympic berth.
"We're both excited and happy. Now we know it's just hard work. We've got to skate our hearts out," said Stagniunas, whose Olympic dream was shut down four years ago when then partner Katherine Copely was denied Lithuanian citizenship.
He said Tobias woke him up at 6:30 a.m. with the news.
"I called and screamed into the phone," Tobias said.
"We're very thankful to the president," Stagniunas said. "This is an athlete's dream."
They don't yet have a date for a citizenship ceremony, but the duo, which trains in Detroit with coach Igor Shpilband, anticipates going to Lithuania sometime before the end of the year to finalize details and get Tobias' passport. Tobias said she understands they will meet with Grybauskaite when they're there.
Tobias and Stagniunas competed at three international competitions this fall -- the International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Finlandia Trophy and Skate America. Their performances were somewhat subpar, which they attribute to the uncertainty surrounding Tobias' citizenship.
"We've been through so much together. I have shed so many tears over this and had so much stress," Tobias said. "Now, especially so out of the blue to finally get it, I was shell shocked. Now it's finally dawning on me that our dream is actually going to come true.
"It's honestly so incredible," she added. "Sometimes you have to go through things to appreciate the good. We're so appreciative and grateful."
They went to practice as usual Monday, although Tobias said it was hard to stay in character in their free dance. Their mime teacher was annoyed that at the end of the program, when Tobias is supposed to die, she couldn't stop smiling.
Lithuania won't have a large contingent in Sochi, but there should be at least six other athletes on the team, including cross country skiers and a short track speed skater. Tobias and Stagniunas have the highest international ranking.
"It's been incredible to have this outpouring of support," Tobias said.
Tobias is not the only ice dancer to obtain citizenship this fall, allowing for Olympic competition. Charlene Guignard got Italian citizenship, and Stefano Caruso received German citizenship, as did Nelli Zhiganshina, with Zhiganshina's notification also coming Monday.
Stagniunas' longtime girlfriend is U.S. ice dancer Madison Chock. He said it would be "amazing" if she also earns an Olympic spot.