July 19, 2009
There's no off-season for figure skaters and their coaches
BY JO-ANN BARNAS
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
It's a sport confined to no season. Even in mid-July, coaches are working in their cold-weather apparel -- long pants, fleece-lined jackets and parkas.
At the Arctic Edge Arena in Canton, figure skating coach and choreographer Marina Zoueva spoons honey into a mug of hot tea between sessions.
At the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club, ice dancers Evan Bates and Emily Samuelson head to ballet class with dueling colds.
And at the Detroit Skating Club, U.S. men's champion Jeremy Abbott and Daisuke Takahashi -- who's visiting from Japan to work with choreographer Pasquale Camerlengo -- alternate playing program music as they practice at opposite ends of "A" rink.
"People ask us when our off-season is, and it's hard to explain because we really don't have an off-season," said Meryl Davis of West Bloomfield, who won the U.S. gold medal in ice dance with Charlie White in January.
The Free Press dropped by the Detroit area's three major figure skating clubs last week to check in on our Olympic hopefuls. What did we find?
With the Vancouver Winter Games seven months away, there has been no time to hibernate.
TUESDAY, 9 A.M.: ARCTIC FSC
In a couple of hours, the lobby will be transformed to a party scene for coach Igor Shpilband's 45th birthday. The celebration will serve as a respite from the day's work of constructing programs and training ice dancers for the upcoming season.
Zoueva has been at the rink since 6 a.m. to prepare for the avalanche of teams that begin arriving for practice at 7 a.m. On this day, her spiral-bound organizer reveals a booked schedule through 5 p.m.
Arctic FSC is home to two of the top-four ice dance teams in the world: bronze medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, and Team USA's Davis and White, who were fourth at the world meet in March.
But Shpilband and Zoueva have eight other teams that train full-time in Canton, including current world junior champions Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, who have moved up to seniors this season.
The dance crew shares ice time with the club's pair teams coached by Johnny Johns and Adrienne Lenda. While a clock ticks down the remaining minutes in the session, pairs skaters Andrea Best and Trevor Young work on their long program a few yards from where Davis and White are practicing a move.
Last month, Best and Young received pointers on how to execute a triple twist from 2006 Olympic pairs silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, who were visiting from China to work with Zoueva.
"This is the time of year when teams can make the most progress," Shpilband said. "For the coach and choreographer, it's the hardest time because you're trying to find the right style for the skater."
Davis and White, as an example, listened to hundreds of songs this past spring before choosing "Phantom of the Opera" for their free dance. For their original dance, the team has been consulting with an Indian folk dancer in Ann Arbor to make their program "as authentic as possible," Davis said.
Virtue and Moir are about to begin work with a Spanish dance instructor for their Flamenco original dance. Their coaches, though, aren't ready to reveal the team's music choice for their free dance.
"I will say that it's classical -- and very unique," Zoueva said.
WEDNESDAY, 10:30 A.M.: DETROIT SC
The Bloomfield Hills club is unusually quiet because many skaters are in Pennsylvania for a competition. The reigning U.S. ladies gold medalist, Alissa Czisny, is also nowhere to be found: She's out of town working with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic men's champion.
Because there were no extended tours this summer, Detroit SC skating director Jerod Swallow believes the extra time has allowed skaters to rest and recover after last season. The senior Grand Prix circuit starts Oct. 15 in Paris.
The 2010 U.S. championships, which double as the Olympic trials, will be held over two weekends in January in Spokane, Wash.
The Detroit SC has been the training base for three years for six-time Italian ice dance champions Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali. The team recently returned from Europe, where they had their Italian country folk dance choreographed.
Camerlengo and Angelika Krylova are Faiella and Scali's primary coaches in Michigan. The coaches also work part-time with another top team, current Canadian bronze medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. That team is in Madrid working on their Flamenco original dance, Camerlengo said.
"It's an exciting time of year, but at the same time it's very hard for a coach," said Camerlengo. "You're making choices, and hoping they're the right ones -- so you can get stressed out about this. It's not just the music choice, but the steps and choreography. My brain has been working a lot."
At 12:15 p.m., Abbott, who relocated from Colorado Springs, Colo., this summer to train with the Detroit SC's Yuka Sato, has been warming up waiting for Sato to arrive. Shortly after she moves into position behind the boards, they begin working on his triple axel.
Abbott said his short program this season -- to the Beatles song "A Day in the Life" performed by Jeff Beck -- was choreographed by former Canadian ice dancer Shae Lynn Bourne. His free skate is from two songs: "Jupiter" (by Gustav Holst) and "Pines of Rome" (by Ottorino Respighi). The architect of Abbott's long program is Tom Dickson.
"It's a big emotional piece that gives me chills," Abbott said.
THURSDAY, 12:15 P.M.: ANN ARBOR FSC
Samuelson and Bates are coming off a breakthrough season, winning the U.S. silver medal behind Davis and White and placing a respectable 11th in their first world championships as senior skaters. (Former Canton ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto didn't compete at nationals because of injury, but they received a bye into worlds, where they captured the silver medal).
On this day, Samuelson and Bates were eating lunch with their training mates and pals, Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell -- the brother-sister team that placed fourth in their first senior worlds last season after competing on the junior Grand Prix circuit.
The Hubbells were elated when the assignments for the ISU senior Grand Prix series were released. They received two competitions: Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris and Skate Canada in Kitchener, Ontario.
There was another surprise: Samuelson and Bates received the same assignments.
"We're both competitors, but we both want each other to do well," Madison Hubbell said. "It's great having Emily and Evan there for support for our first senior Grand Prixs."
The coaches of the two senior ice dance teams -- Yaroslava Nechaeva and Iouri Tchesnitchenko -- say they're not ready to release the music of their skaters' programs.
"It's kind of crazy thinking that the Olympics are seven months away," Bates said. "I think everyone would agree that nationals is the most important event because that's where you need to be on top."
Keiffer Hubbell said: "There's going to be a few teams trying for that (third) Olympic spot in ice dance. I feel that if we push as hard as we can, we're not going to have too many regrets."
Contact JO-ANN BARNAS: 313-222-2037 or email@example.com.