For more than a decade, coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva have been the go-to taskmasters of ice dancing. He made the U.S. relevant by demanding that athletes stop treating ice dancing as an also-ran event; she insisted on seemingly impossible precision moves and conditioning to turn dancers into athletes. Together, their renown has helped them attract the sport's top talent, including nearly half a dozen teams who are contenders for a medal in Sochi. Together, they became the winningest coaching team in U.S. ice-dancing history. Considering the turnaround that has occurred under their guidance, the 2014 Games should be a shining moment for the duo.
Except for one problem: they aren't talking to each other.
In a very public--and poorly timed--professional breakup, Shpilband and Zoueva parted company in 2012. The dispute has become the defining drama of ice dancing for this Olympics--no small accomplishment in this oft-derided soap opera of a sport that in past years has seen love triangles between competing teams. He was fired from the Canton, Mich., rink where the two had worked since 2003, while Zoueva remained. "She not exist for me," says Shpilband in Russian-accented English.
As a result, dance duos who had logged thousands of hours on the ice with Shpilband and Zoueva were forced to choose sides just a year before the Games. The athletes--including six-time national champions and gold-medal favorites Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who chose to train with Zoueva--say they are ready to compete. But there is no question that they and all the other skaters affected by the split will take the ice in the shadow of the squabble. Depending on how the marks and medals are handed out, Sochi could vindicate one coach or the other--or if the U.S. falls flat, the battle between these two big-name coaches could become the scapegoat.
Ice dancing first became a medal sport at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. Meant to highlight the more precise, technical bladework required to translate familiar ballroom styles like the quick step and European waltz to the ice, it lacked the wow factor of figure skating's spectacular jumps and dizzying spins. So it was no surprise that few skaters (and more important, few parents of young skaters) in the U.S. were clamoring to be Fred and Ginger on ice. After earning a bronze at Innsbruck, the U.S. entered a 20-year stretch with no medals, while East European skaters, who benefited from a long cultural history in dance, dominated with dramatic storytelling and technical skill. In the U.S., dance became the sideshow for skaters who couldn't make it in singles or pairs.
Shpilband, an affable Russian with close-cropped dark blond hair and the ruddy complexion of someone who spends a lot of time in cold rinks, was a prime force in changing that. In 1990, when he was touring as a skater (with ice-dance legends Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean), Shpilband and four others, including his soon-to-be first wife, defected from the Soviet Union. They left their hotel room in New York with nothing but their skates and cameras in order to avoid suspicion. "None of them spoke English," says Johnny Johns, then skating director of the Detroit Figure Skating Club, who had been looking for ice-dance coaches to fill out his roster. Impressed by their résumés, Johns took them in.