Margarita Drobiazko, Povilas Vanagas: WHY DID THEY COME BACK?
|Photo © Alex Vilf
Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas
Lithuanian ice dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas returned to the amateur ice after the three years break, causing enough contradicting comments. Some think that under the new rules, this skaters can only hope for a spot in top ten at Turin 2006, and others say that Drobiazko/Vanagas are able to fight for the medal, even the gold one. One thing is clear: Drobiazko/Vanagas had entered the Olympic zone, winning Karl Scheffer memorial a week ago and earning the right to compete at the Games.
SPENTE LE STELLE
These dancers grew in Moscow and their career developed under the unspoken laws of ice dance world. Great skating, taste, elegance, and many other «pluses»… All of it was melting in the eyes of the judges as the team competed under the flag of its country. Unlike the ballroom dance, Lithuania was never one of the grand countries on ice, and didn't have any judges' support accordingly. Initially, Drobiazko/Vanagas and their permanent coach Elena Maslennikova, should've not hoped for the place on the podium.
Everything changed in 2000, when Elena Chaikovskaya started to train them. The legendary coach was a pushing factor for the Lithuanian team. Either her presence at the boards gave the skaters an inner confidence, or it made the judges treat the student of such a reputable expert with more respect. The results progressed fantastically. At Grand Prix Final in France, Drobiazko/Vanagas won a medal for the first time as their free dance moved them from the 5th place to the 3rd.
That composition was fantastically successful even though the idea of it came by a complete accident. At the summer training camp in Sochi, Povilas met a man during the water treatments - the man was in the next tab, loudly complaining about the level of service. Turned out, he was a dancer before. Next time they met, the man bragged he bought a cool pirated CD with arias.
When Drobiazko and Vanagas heard one of the arias, they lost their sleep. They started to walk around the music stores, turning the record on for the sales people, since the CD had no title or the name of the artists. Anyway, they succeeded in their search for Spente Le Stelle by Emma Shaplin.
Maslennikova was on maternity leave, and for the first time in their lives, Rita and Povilas took care of all choreography. They picked a slow rumba for the original dance, the triumphal dance performed by Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean at Europeans and Olympics in 1994.
At Europeans 2000, they were third again, winning the first ice dance medal for their country. After the original dance, Torvill, who commentated for BBC, said the considered that program the best out of all she saw on the ice in Vienna.
The Lithuanians won their next bronze at the Word in Nice. True, the performance was not as impressing as in France and in Austria. Povilas said they were too careful and their skating was too tense. Despite that, the skaters looked forward the next season, especially since Chaikovskaya announced after the triumph in Nice that she would personally choreograph the programs for Drobiazko/Vanagas
THE GREAT COACH MISCALCULATES
The choreography didn't work out. It became clear immediately after the programs were ready. The skaters were especially upset that the most important program, the free dance, turned out to be uncomfortable to perform. It took all the strength out of them, and when Rita and Povilas tried to squeeze something memorable out of the dance, it made them even more exhausted. The hardest part was realizing that it was too late to change the programs. The skaters usually started to work on their programs in May, but this time, the creative process started two months later. At this point, Drobiazko and Vanagas didn't make a decision to get into the work on their own. This step would possible upset their coach.
At the end, they had to change their free dance. After they lost the bronze at Europeans to Irina Lobacheva/Ilia Averbukh, the Lithuanians went back to the old program – Spente Le Stelle.
«That was the most horrible season in our lives, - recalled Rita. - We realized very well that we can't hope for a medal, as it's is not customary in dance to skate the same program two years in a row. We took that step and made a decision for ourselves – to hell with the medal, we'll enjoy our skating».
After Drobiazko/Vanagas finished their free dance at the Worlds in Vancouver, the audience was on the feet. This reaction, rare for the official competitions, made it clear: it was obvious for the fans who should be the champion. However, the political mechanisms were already involved in the placement. The most influential federation in figure skating, the Russian, couldn't allow a Russian team not making a World podium a year before the Games.
That competition was pretty strange. Barbara Fuzar-Poli and Mauricio Margaglio won the gold, but the irony was that Tatiana Tarasova, their coach, said after the event, «You know, there are competitions, where the jury has a right not to give out the Grand Prize. That's what I would've done about the final. Nobody was good enough for the gold today».
That was really the case. After Pasha Grishuk/Evgeni Platov retired, this event didn't have the leaders. At many competitions, the winners were separated from the medalists only by one vote, and that didn't reflect their level as much as it reflect whether or not the compatriot-judge was on the panel. Naturally, the power of Lithuania couldn't compare to Italy, France, or Russia. 2000 seasons was an exception, a nice coincidence, that's all.
Did Chaikovskaya understand that? No doubt. There were talks backstage – the coach thinks Drobiazko/Vanagas should retire before 2002 Games as they wouldn't be allowed to win any medals anyway.
On the outside, everything stayed the same. The Lithuanians were getting ready for their fourth Games, knowing this was their last season competing. They turned to Maslennikova for choreography. They realized it would be extremely difficult to get a medal at Salt Lake City and they worked hard, without having any thoughts about giving up the fight.
«This is sport, and you can never predict how the event goes, -Drobiazko and Vanagas said later. - Who could've predicted that two teams would fall in the free dance at Salt Lake City? They were the teams contending for the win. In theory, we could've moved from the 5th to the 3rd, right? Just imagine if we retired in 2002. Then we would watch the favorites fall in the final, and we would bite our elbows».
THE SHOCK OF OLYMPIC SEASON
The World champions were the first ones to fall at the Olympic final as Mauricio Margaglio tripped in the footwork sequence. The fall of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz was even more shocking. At first, nobody realized how they fell at the last seconds of their program. Moreover, their bodies splattered over the ice turned the audience to the thought that it was the way it meant to be. Only in the replay, it became clear – it's not just an accidental fall like Margaglio had. It was a very big mistake. Kraatz lost his balance on the lift and his feet gave out. A connecting move was following, but there was no place to put his partner after it as the height wouldn't allow it. He could've only put his partner on the ice so she would be laying down. That's what Kraatz did, beautifully crashing down next to her.
The fall was played out great for the stage. Technically, it had a simple name – the skaters didn't finish the program. In skating, this mistake is not just punishable, it is unforgiven.
Still, Bourne/Kraatz staid in fourth place, Drobiazko/Vanagas – in fifth. Lithuanian Figure Skating Federation filed a protest, but it remained unresolved. The skaters had a philosophic view of their results, «What can we do? At least we know we fought to the end and did everything we could. We had no regrets».
At the Nagano Worlds, Drobiazko and Vanagas should've been at least third, according that that infamous ice dance hierarchy. Two medal winning teams from the Olympics, Marina Anisina/Gwendal Peizerat and Barbara Fusar-Poli/Mauricio Margaglio declined the event. However, the Lithuanians staid in third only until the free dance. In the final event, most judges put Galit Chait/Sergei Sakhnovsky from Israel into the third place.
That scheme was clearly dirty, and we can say it became the last drop that made the ISU President Ottavio Chinquanta to insist on the complete change of the judging system. There is no need to recall the details. We'll just say that the bronze that was given to Israelis in 2002 is still echoing, blocking the way for any big events medals for them.
In Nagano, most of the skaters, some coaches and judges signed a letter demanding the explanation of what happened. Wherever Drobiazko and Vanagas showed up, they received a hero's welcome and the ovation. It didn't make it easier on them. They were leaving the sport being deeply depressed and completely confident they'll never compete as amateurs again.
WHO TO ASK FOR HELP
A week ago at Karl Scheffer's Memorial in Vienna, Vanagas admitted to me, «For the first two years, we couldn't think about competing again at all. After the Worlds, we went on the lengthy tour of Europe, organized by the French federation. In the summer, we performed in USA for three weeks, and in the fall, Philippe Candeloro invited us, and that was special because only World and Olympic champions skated in that tour. Later, we went to different shows, and most important, we organized our own tour for three years in a row. It was a huge success in Lithuania. With all that, different people constantly came to us and often said that we have to start competing again. We started thinking about it.
At first, these conversations were like a game, «So, are we coming back?», «Of course!». Then, we got used to that thought. Anyway, before the 2005 Worlds, we started thinking who to ask for help in addition to Maslennikova. We decided that the perfect choice would be Rostislav Sinicyn, who is one of the best experts in compulsories, and Igor Shpilband with Marina Zoueva. Fortunately, none of them said no to us».
Finding place to train in Lithuania became a problem. Drobiazko and Vanagas started to skate at the unheated rink at Kaunas at nights. This gave them the opportunity for the unlimited time on ice. Well, it was «unlimited» in theory as the cold temperature made it too shivering.
Rita and Povilas spent the summer in the US, in Sun Valley, at the famous open rink where 70 years ago, a movie was made – «The Serenade of Sun Valley». They were given free ice and room in exchange for performing in a local show every Saturday. As before, Maslennikova helped with choreography along with one of the most famous Lithuanians dancers (on the floor) Gintaras Svistunavicus. At times, when their performing schedule allowed, the skaters came to Shpilband who permanently worked in Detroit with Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto.
Rita says, «We are really grateful to Tanith and Ben. Shpilband probably discussed it with them before giving us the answer. They could've said that didn't want to see another team near them, but they didn't say now. Moreover, we now have a really friendly relationship. I even felt a little uncomfortable by realizing we'll have a tough competition with them starting with a very first event.
By the way, a funny thing happened at Nebelhorn Trophy. When we were packing for the competition, we couldn't find some parts of Povilas' jacket for the compulsory dance. Belbin/Agosto performed before us, and when they were done, Povilas simply took Ben's clothes from him almost near the ice, and went skating in his costume. Well, we discussed it before, but I went on the ice thinking it would be uncomfortable if we end up in the first place».
Drobiazko and Vanagas won the free dance, set to the famous music from the Phantom of the Opera. The Americans fell on the footwork sequence, but even without a fall, it was clear that it wouldn't be easy for them as well as for many others, to compete with Lithuanians in the future.
Same thing was noticeable in Vienna. Even though Lithuanians' free dance was «raw», it amazed with dance being a whole and Rita and Povilas executing the elements required by the new rules with surprising ease.
Several representatives from Lithuanian Olympic Committee came to watch their team. When Drobiazko and Vanagas officially announced their return in the spring, they were reasonably asked if they were sure they'll make the qualification. The competition in Vienna gave the answer. Rita and Povilas won and received a ticket to the Games.
Vanagas says , «I've read the comments by some skaters how after missing three years, you can only hope for a spot in top ten, not a medal. I was very happy when I learned that Belbin/Agosto were coming to Oberstdorf. It was nice to feel that after the three-year break, we can compete with the second team in the World as equals. Still, a lot of feelings were unusual. For example, in three years, we completely lost the habit of skating with the full lighting and at first, we sort of fell naked on ice.
The dances became different to. Before, we never thought about what and how we do on the ice. We just danced without worrying that we'll under-rotate something. Now, every under-rotated spin or a foot set too early means losing the point. You are almost unconsciously counting all the time, and of course, it takes away from the dram of the dance itself and doesn't let you to go free completely. Of course, we would like to compete with the serious teams before the Europeans and compete at couple of Grand Prix events, but it's almost unrealistic. After the Oberstdorf, we ranked 96th in the World. Now, after winning in Vienna, we'll move up, but it's still not enough to get on board.
In any case, it's good we managed to come even to these events. We understood how different judging panels interpret new system, where we should takes risks, and where we should not. Most important, it makes no sense to look at others marks. We should just skate. And then, whatever G-d gives us».
A GOAL BEYOND THE LIMITS
In Kaunas, the skaters lived in Povilas' mom's house. Lilia Vanagene says, «You can't imagine how fanatically they worked all these months. They would come from the rink at five in the morning, barely alive, then they would discuss and analyze the tapes from the practice until eight. I would go to work then, and Rita an Povilas would sleep a little and go work with the choreographer and take the fencing lessons. That was only for the exhibition program. At night, they would go to the rink again. You don't work like that so you could «just participate» in the Olympics. This is how you work to reach a goal beyond your limitations.
At first, I tried to talk them out of it. Why should you get into the hot spot when your life is settled, you have a job you love and you get paid well for it? I realized very fast all the discussions were pointless. So, I had to stand next to them and help…»
Why'd they come back? So many times this question was asked in 1994, when Ekaterina Gordeeva/Sergei Grinkov, Natalia Mishkutenok/Artur Dmitriev, Jane Torvill/Christopher Dean, Brian Boitano, Kurt Browning, and Katarina Witt came to the Olympics. Each of this skaters also settled into a nice life and guaranteed job, but they all put it on the back burner without thinking much.
Some of them succeeded and some not, but none of them regretted their decision later on.