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Tobias, Stagniunas keep up citizenship fight

Ice dancers continue after Tobias' Lithuanian citizenship denied

Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunas are not eligible to compete on behalf of Lithuania at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunas are not eligible to compete on behalf of Lithuania at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. (Getty Images)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(01/18/2013) - "We were really shocked and extremely sad," said ice dancer Isabella Tobias, whose request for Lithuanian citizenship was denied by Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite on Jan. 7. Citizenship is required to represent a country in Olympic competition.

A statement from the presidential press service explaining the decision noted, "Head of state made this decision in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, rulings of the Constitutional Court, the Law on Citizenship and a proposal by the Citizenship Commission."

The Lithuanian constitution allows an individual to receive Lithuanian citizenship who has great merits. It was determined that Tobias had not yet achieved that, and future merits could not be considered.

Tobias, 21, who was born and raised in New York City, teamed with Deividas Stagniunas, 27, in 2010. They've twice competed at the world championships, finishing 14th in 2011 and 18th in 2012. They placed ninth at the 2012 European Championships and won a bronze medal at 2011 Skate America. They also hold the Lithuanian title.

They train in Novi, Mich., with coach Igor Shpilband.

"They found I wasn't exceptional enough to Lithuanian society, even though we're their top Winter Olympic athletes," Tobias said. "I am not integrated enough into Lithuanian society. I can understand that part, but there aren't facilities that we can train at there. There aren't the coaches that we would need."

Tobias submitted her application for Lithuanian citizenship in October 2012. She was asked to go for an interview with the Citizenship Commission on Dec. 20. At that time, she was given a language test.

"There was no English spoken, nothing translated. It was totally in Lithuanian," said Tobias, who has been studying the language for the past year. "I got 58 out of 60 questions right. I passed the Lithuanian exam.

"Then, I had a meeting with this commission," she continued. "They had a translator there. The first question they asked was, 'Why do you want Lithuanian citizenship?' I understood it and I started to answer in Lithuanian, but they said, 'We want you to answer in English.' Maybe they wanted me to have freedom in expressing myself.

"I cried in the meeting. I begged them. I said, 'Please, we've been giving our blood, sweat and tears for Lithuania.' We kept skating through Deividas' mother passing away (she died from cancer shortly after the 2012 World Championships) and through injury. We have given everything that we can."

Request for comment from the Lithuanian Skating Federation by icenetwork.com received no reply. Tobias said the federation has been completely behind her citizenship application, and the federation's president, Lilija Vanagiene, mother of five-time Olympian Povilas Vanagas, had a meeting with the Citizenship Commission advocating for Tobias. It should be noted that Vanagas' partner, Margarita Drobiazko, was born in Russia and received her Lithuanian citizenship long before they reached the top 10 in the world or married.

In the weeks since Tobias' citizenship was refused, a petition has surfaced, which many Lithuanians have signed in support of Tobias receiving citizenship. A Parliament group on youth and sport has also formed to try and find an amendment to the law. President Grybauskaite has not offered opposition to further investigation.

Tobias has said that when she teamed with Stagniunas, there were no guarantees she would receive Lithuanian citizenship in time for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. But Shpilband and then-coaching partner Marina Zoueva were optimistic despite the fact that Stagniunas' previous partner, Katherine Copely, had been denied -- even though they had qualified for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

"Katherine Copely didn't speak any Lithuanian," Tobias noted. "They never asked her to have an interview. It never went that extensive with her. We really felt that it would be different this time, especially with the bronze medal at Skate America and the top 10 at Europeans."

After receiving the initial refusal, Tobias and Stagniunas were devastated, but after careful consideration, they have decided to continue to train and compete through the 2014 World Championships regardless of whether the Olympics are in the picture. They withdrew from next week's European championships due to Stagniunas' back problems, but expect to be ready for worlds in London, Ontario.

"I feel, before, we put too much emphasis on the citizenship," Tobias said. "Now, we're just focusing on our skating, which I think, if we train and work really hard and do our job, will speak for itself.

"We made a commitment when we first started skating to skate to 2014. I think we owe it to one another."