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Figure Skating - Coaches
Marina Zueva and Igor Shpilband: OUR PEOPLE IN DETROIT
Benjamin Agosto (left), Igor Shpilband, Maria Zueva and Tanith Belbin
Photo © Alex Wilf
Torino. Benjamin Agosto (left), Igor Shpilband, Maria Zueva and Tanith Belbin

At the World championships in Goteborg, three ice dancing teams of Maria Zueva and Igor Shpilband ended up in top six; the youngest, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, won silver.


Zueva and Shpilband ended up abroad at about the same time. Back in Russia, Marina was the permanent choreographer for Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov; she continued to create programs for the legendary pair after moving to Ottawa; after the skaters became two-time Olympic champions in Lillehammer, she continued to work with them on the professional ice. When Katya started skating as a single after Sergeis sudden death, Zueva remained nearby. She then moved to Detroit.

Shpilbands American career was far more dramatic. In 1990, he along with three other athletes from Tatiana Tarasovas theater decided against returning to Russia after a tour. It was in Detroit that Igor started his coaching career. At first, just to make ends meet, he would train anyone who was interested at one of several rinks; then, he started achieving results. The coachs first elite team was the many-time US champions Elizabeth Punsalan/ Jerod Swallow; the second were Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, with whom Shpilband worked together with Zueva. In 2002, those skaters became Junior World champions; four years later, they won silver at the Turin Olympics.

The ascent of the Canadian team of Virtue and Moir was likewise swift. They won junior Worlds in 2006. A year ago, they jumped to the top six at the senior Worlds on their first try. In Goteborg, they won the free dance, prompting talks about the 18-year-old Tessa and 20-year-old Scott being the more likely contenders for the Vancouver gold.

Then again, the coaches were far from happy on the day of this interview. Tanith Belbin unexpectedly fell in the compulsory dance, and the team that was hitherto a hands-on favorite for the gold ended up off the podium. The Canadians, too, were third after he original dance, trailing not only the leaders (French team of Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder) but also to the Russians Yana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitksi.


- Normally, an ice dancing coach should not have similarly ranked teams in their group. In your case, there is direct competition between Belbin/ Agosto and Virtue/ Moir. Is that good or bad?

- Elite teams have approached me on several occasions, but I turned them down for that very reason. The competition within our group was unintended, as they were on entirely different levels when I started training them. Now, the competition is actually among three teams. Meryl Davis and Charlie White even got a higher technical mark than Belbin and Agosto in the Yankee Polka at the US Nationals.

- Did this situation result from too rapid improvement of the young, or the too slow one in the older team?

- Each team and each athlete develops differently. There is no standard for improvement. By the way, I dont think that Belbin and Agosto have peaked. Perhaps they are on a loosing streak at this particular stage, but I continue to see great potential in them.

- How hard is it to train direct competitors?

- I guess were lucky, as all our teams display unique friendliness to each other. Marina and I love them all equally and dedicate ourselves equally to all of them, so there is no hint of jealousy in our group. Sometimes it even seems to me that its not possible, but nevertheless it is.

- When Belbin and Agosto entered the international arena, they became the talk of everyone. Now, its the same around Virtue and Moir. As coaches, do you do anything to create additional advertisement for your athletes?

- We dont do anything extraordinary. Whenever a new interesting team emerges, it attracts attention.

- Do you at least invite people to practice sessions?

- All of our lessons are open, but we dont invite strangers. Obviously, American journalists tend to stop by at the height of the season, especially just before Nationals. Besides competition, there are also many shows, and athletes dont always get paid to participate. For example, Harford annually hosts shows supporting cancer victims.

- Is it an honor or a responsibility to take part in those shows?

- All of our athletes consider such invitations as a chance to somehow help those who need it most. In the same was they take part in the annual 911 show, where all the proceeds go to support accident victims. Clearly, an athlete must have some name recognition to be invited to such events. On our part, we try to make sure our students are always in this pool.


- Could Belbins fall result from your athletes feeling like they were already champions after Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin withdrew from Goteborg?

- I wouldnt say that the absence of Domnina and Shabalin lowered the competition. There were still the French and the Canadians. However, Tanith and Ben were a hundred percent ready for the compulsory dance. Trust me, they have never been so ready in their lives. So, they were absolutely confident. Perhaps, they lost focus toward the end of the program as a result.

- What did you do after that? Sympathized with them, comforted them, or explained the reasons why it happened?

- All three. Of course, it wasnt easy falling like that and loosing all chances for a victory from the very start of championships. However, there were no hysterics. Belbin and Agosto made a big step forward. They managed to prove to themselves that they were able to keep on fighting even in such tough circumstances.

I always tell athletes he was does the most makes the most mistakes. There is nothing tragic about this.

- Every time I talk to you about your athletes, I cant help feeling like theyre your children. What does a coach feel when there are that many children, and when they all covet the same medal?

- They are indeed, all loved and cherished. I think, though, that when there are many of them, the coaches, just like parents, have an easier time making the right decisions. When theres only one, you make more mistakes. Also, athletes learn a lot from each other in such a case.

- Which of your three teams is the most ambitious?

- Each athlete is ambitious in their own way. There is always someone in each pair. I dont want to name names, since it is a big component of our psychological work with them.

- So, why not switch some partners around, pairing up the most ambitious ones

- Thats one thing wed never do. All of our teams are in some sense unique. All three have skated together for a decade. Theyve never had any other partners.

- Do the Canadian and American skating federations support you in some way?

- They partially finance athlete preparation. I, however, have no idea what sums were talking about here. Igor has been the American coach of the year several times. Canada doesnt have that. However, both countries look favorably at us, and thats a big thing in itself.


- Did anyone try to lure your athletes away from you?

- Yes, about five or six years ago, but I dont want to talk about it. It concerned Belbin and Agosto, and they were the ones who eventually told me about it. I was glad that Tanith and Ben thought about it on their own and made their decision accordingly.

- Maxim Shabalin once noted that Virtue and Moir are of an entirely new generation. They even warm up differently.

- Well, Maxim certainly pays attention.

- Is it really so?

- Certainly. Tessa and Scott grew up with the new rules. Four years are exactly what they spent as juniors. Previous ice dancing generation did not have to do twizzles in different directions. They did not have to learn so many new spins, or so elements such as Rocker or Counter.

- Many coaches still have mixed feelings about the new requirements. Some are openly hostile. What about you?

- Some things are indeed annoying. In particular, the fact that the rules change annually. For example, in the upcoming year the choice of the compulsories will be between Paso Doble and the Viennese Waltz. However, ISU dictates that which of those dances is performed gets determined by a random draw. As a coach, I do not find this acceptable. I want to understand all the details of why my team wins or looses, and what exactly it did well or poorly. The whole point of compulsory competition today is in comparing the teams. ISU, however, insists that it should be judging as opposed to comparing. Therefore, it doesnt matter what is skated. However, how do you compare two entirely different dances? Whats better apples or oranges?

- It seems to me that it would be fairer to just abolish the component mark for the compulsories if it is a purely technical competition. However, as far as I know, ISU plans to abolish this program altogether in the near future.

- Compulsories have played an enormous role in the development of our sport, but they will be left behind sooner or later. The same thing happened with school figures in single skating, though those lingered for a long time. If we want dancing to remain interesting for viewers and for TV, and for this sport to even survive and continue to develop, there is no other way, especially since ISU unequivocally insists on cutting down the ice dancing program.


- Now that the season is over, whats next?

- Two of our teams are guest stars on Stars on Ice. We know the schedule, including the days off. Now, we play to get some rest and start working on new programs.

- Do you have a concept of vacation?

- Of course. However, if Igor and I would leave simultaneously for 20 days, I guess all of our athletes would just scatter. Therefore, we also have to play our vacations in advance. Usually, its not longer than a week.

- Many coaches complain that the new rules are causing more injuries. Is that true?

- Much depends on the athletes natural flexibility. We work on it a lot. In truth, the rules dont force anyone to break themselves. Those whore not flexible enough can make due with other lifts and elements. By the way, the compulsories cause no less injuries than the free dances. Id even say they cause more, especially the slow ones. They carry too great a burden on ankles and knees. The gliding has to be carried for along time to be solid and expressive. Any position in the compulsory where a leg is bent backward is unnatural for a human body. It carries a great stress on the spine. Thats hard to endure, since those moves must be repeated not a hundred but a thousand times.

- Do you hire specialists who monitor the athletes health?

- Of course. That forms a part of the rehabilitation preparation. I cant vouch for all coaches, but in our group its the law. Ive been in figure skating too long to fail to understand the importance of this. I therefore insisted from the very start of my work with Igor that athletes work with a permanent doctor, physical therapist, and masseur. We also have nutritionists on hand if any athlete requires it. Many of those doctors also work with the Detroit Red Wings hockey players.

- When we were at the Turin Olympics, I visited the center that housed the medical and scientific group of the American skating team. I met everyone, and arranged to be able to come to them at a moments notice if we need help. Sport is too dangerous a profession to leave anything to chance.


© , 2003