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Shpilband, Zoueva at forefront of dance revolution

Coaches guide American ice dance teams to the top

Meryl Davis and Charlie White with Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White with Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(05/24/2011) - When Meryl Davis and Charlie White step up to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch at the Detroit Tigers-Tampa Bay Rays baseball game Tuesday night, they will be the center of attention.

As they should.

The first Americans to win the world title in ice dancing no doubt deserve the credit and attention that has come their way since they made skating history in Moscow late last month.

But even they admit they couldn't have stepped up to the plate the way they did had it not been for their coaches, Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, the behind-the-scenes orchestrators of the masterful work displayed on the ice.

"I think we're as happy for them as they are for us,'' White said. 'We put our faith in them and they put their faith in us.''

The back story behind this almost-didn't-happen world title is a testament to that mutual faith. Davis and White had cruised through the post-Olympic season almost effortlessly, winning all five of the events they entered leading up to the 2011 World Championships. As they and skaters around the world prepared to compete in worlds in Tokyo, a tsunami and a series of earthquakes devastated Japan in March and put the world championships in jeopardy.

As concerned as Davis and White were about the people in Japan -- and there is no doubt that they were -- they were also dealing with the very real possibility that their chance at a world title could slip away. The skaters continued to train at their rink in Canton, Mich., but their minds were swirling with all sorts of rumors. Would the championships be canceled? Would they be relocated? Would they be held as late as October?

How worried was Shpilband during this time of flux: Very.

"Yes, yes, yes, I was worried,'' Shpilband said. "Very worried. When I heard the ISU was trying to move worlds to October, I was just devastated.''

Ultimately, the world championships were moved to Moscow and they were held in late April, and that's where the story becomes even more intriguing. That's because Moscow is where both Shpilband and Zoueva were born. Shpilband, who competed in ice dancing for the Soviet Union, defected to the United States in 1990. Zoueva, who guided Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov to Olympic gold in the pairs event, wound up immigrating to Canada.

For them to return to Russia, a country which has long dominated ice dancing, with the chance at making American history, was an irony not lost on either Shpilband or Zoueva.

Shpilband had been touring the United States with several other Russian skaters back in 1990 as part of a troupe headlined by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Gorsha Sur, one of the Russian ice dancers, decided to defect, and Shpilband decided to join him. Shpilband and Veronika Pershina did not want anyone to suspect they were going to flee so they left their hotel room with nothing but their video camera and skates.

Shortly afterward, Shpilband was offered a coaching position in Detroit, and there, he literally grew an ice dancing mecca from the ground up.

Among his first students were Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow. Sur recommended Shpilband to them.

"We had no idea who he was,'' said Swallow, who had been training with Sandy Hess in Colorado Springs at the time. "We really only knew that his name was Igor.''

But because Swallow had grown up skating at the Detroit Skating Club and Punsalan had spent some time there as well, they were willing to head to Detroit and meet this unknown Russian coach. Even though Shpilband spoke very broken English, he choreographed two programs for the couple in the spring of 1992, and Punsalan and Swallow enjoyed working with him so much that they returned to Detroit in the summer to have him create their free dance. By the 1993-94 season, Shpilband had become the couple's head coach, and under his guidance, they captured the 1994 national title and they competed in the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

Shpilband began grooming other ice dancing teams as well: Jessica Joseph and Charles Butler, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, Eve Chalom and Matthew Gates, Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. In the midst of this time, in 2000, Shpilband became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Five years later, he became the head coach for Davis and White. Zoueva, meanwhile, began working as the team's choreographer the previous year.

Although Shpilband was making incredible strides in the United States, American ice dancing teams still struggled to climb the ranks internationally. The first U.S. ice dancing team to win a medal (bronze) at the Olympic Winter Games was Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns back in 1976 and it wasn't until 30 years later, when Belbin and Agosto broke through with a silver medal in 2006 that the U.S. made it to the Olympic podium in ice dancing again.

At the beginning of the millennium, the best an American team had fared at the Olympics since 1976 was fourth in 1984 (Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert), sixth in 1988 (Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory) and seventh in 1998 (Punsalan and Swallow).

At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Americans placed 11th and 23rd.

Again, it was Belbin and Agosto who changed things by placing second at worlds in 2005, marking the first time since 1985 that the United States reached the world podium (Blumberg and Siebert placed third that year).

Also, as many skating fans recall, when an ice dancing team was slotted into a ranking, that ranking seemed to stick. Sometimes it lasted for years. Fluctuation was as rare as an uncooked filet mignon.

So, to think that Shpilband and Zoueva were going to break through and build a world championship team seemed possible but fairly unlikely.

"In our generation, I couldn't see this coming,'' Punsalan said. "I always hoped for it, but I knew a lot of things had to come together for it to happen.''

As luck would have it, those things did occur. The Russian era of dominance began to collapse in conjunction with its politics. There was a radical overhaul in the judging system. And in Detroit, ice dancing depth was developing.

In 2005, in Moscow of all places, one of Shpilband's teams finally made it to the medal podium. Belbin and Agosto earned a silver medal at worlds, and the following year, they captured a silver medal at the Olympics in Torino.

By 2010, Shpilband and Zoueva had two teams on the Olympic podium in Vancouver: gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and silver medalists Davis and White. It was an especially emotional time for Shpilband since he and Frank Carroll became the first figure skating coaches selected to march with the U.S. team in the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.

As great as the experience was, Shpilband knew he had yet to claim the world crown for a U.S. team, a feat never accomplished before in the sport. Davis and White, who skated a dazzling free dance at the 2009 World Championships to the music of Samson and Delilah and finished fourth, had placed second to Virtue and Moir at the 2010 World Championships.

Davis and White had been training well leading up to the world championships in Moscow, but there are no certainties anymore, and they knew Virtue and Moir were training well, too. They didn't have to look far to notice that. After all, they saw them every day in practice.

And the last time Davis and White had competed in Moscow, the experience wasn't so great.

"It was horrible,'' Davis said as she recalled the experience of 2008 Cup of Russia. "There was a blizzard and we toured the Red Square with our moms and got freezing and soaking wet and then we got lost and we were stopped by police and we didn't have our papers.

"The next day was the [original dance] and it probably was the worst skate we ever had. Actually, it was a disaster.''

It wasn't a total loss. The couple, buoyed by support from the crowd, wound up placing third, but the overall memories were not easily erased.

When the couple found out they were going back to Moscow in search of their first world title, it wasn't exactly welcome news, but Davis and White were relieved they would have a chance to compete at all.

No one knew what to expect at these world championships. Zoueva left a few days before most of her Detroit skaters and said she chatted up her teams with members of the Russian media. In addition to Davis and White, Shpilband and Zoueva had five teams at worlds.

And as it turned out, with little preparation time, Moscow was able to put on a great show. The weather was pleasant, in the seventies most days, and even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an appearance.

Although Davis and White were second behind Virtue and Moir in the short dance, they outskated them in the free dance to win the title with a combined score of 185.27 points. And on April 30, not only did Davis and White win, but also they led a North American sweep of the podium. Virtue and Moir finished second and the American sister-brother team of Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani came in third.

Not lost in the news was that all three teams are coached by Shpilband and Zoueva, and their coaching sweep is believed to be the first at worlds.

"My goal always was and is and will be my choreography,'' said Zoueva, who has been coaching and choreographing since 1982. "If it touches the soul and heart of the audience, that's what it's all about.''

Still, the sweep was sweet.

A few days after returning to the United States, a reporter called Shpilband and began by exchanging a simple pleasantry: How are you?

"I am awesome,'' he said. "Absolutely awesome.''

He spoke in flawless English.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion,'' said Shpilband, whose mother, sister and a cousin attended worlds and whose daughter, Ekaterina, a competitive figure skater, made the trip to Moscow. "It took a couple of days just for it all to sink in.''

Ekaterina got a chance to see where her father grew up and trained and watched him feted in a country from which he fled.

It seemed to Davis and White that just as many people were congratulating them as they were congratulating their coaches.

Back in the United States, the historical nature of the event was not lost. In fact, many in the ice dancing community were gathered for Governing Council meetings in a hotel ballroom outside of Chicago when Davis and White were skating in Moscow. Fortunately, there were a couple of large-screen TVs and live feed from Moscow was piped in.

"A lot of people were there, and we all kind of came together and were high-fiving each other,'' said Swallow, now the skating director at the Detroit Skating Club. "All of us kind of made the comment that we thought it would never happen.''

But it did.

And the main reason it happened was because of the years of work leading up to this point.

"This did not happen overnight,'' said Susie Wynne, a U.S. champion ice dancer who has known Shpilband for years as both a competitor and a TV commentator. "He worked so hard. Igor developed this camp of people, got the people and got the skaters the hours and the ice time. Whenever he needed the resources, he found them. He and Marina certainly put in their time.''

Somehow, Shpilband and Zoueva have been able to achieve all of this success while maintaining some almost abnormal sense of balance within their rink.

"I don't know what the secret is,'' Davis said. "Both of them have tremendous talent and they make sure we're all happy. I think it comes down to loving skating and loving what we do every day. When I started, ice dancing wasn't the most friendly of sports, but I think it's very pleasant here and we're all genuinely supportive of each other and that's a reason why success has been happening in Canton.''

Shpilband and Zoueva aren't about to reveal any of their trade secrets, but they certainly aren't resting on their laurels, either. They will, however, take a brief respite to celebrate their achievements from this past season by honoring Davis and White at the rink on June 21.

But the main focus now is the future. Already, they've been working with Davis and White on some Latin dancing for their routines for next season.

And perhaps in a few years, they will make a return trip to Russia, when the Olympics will be held in Sochi. There's no doubt Shpilband and Zoueva are already contemplating the next step in this American revolution.