With so many medals belonging to the U.S. and Canada, dominance in ice dancing appears to be the natural order of things for North America.
This Olympic year, the indisputable favorite to win ice dance gold in Sochi is the U.S. team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The 2010 ice dance gold medal went to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.
Not so long ago, in fact, it was difficult to conceive of a North American team so much as making the Olympic podium. From the late 1970s until the late 1990s, the Soviet Union — and later, Russia and Eastern European countries – seemed to have a stranglehold on Olympic ice dance titles.
Though some might view the one-time dominance of Russian ice dancers through a purely political lens, it is also true that Russian-trained skaters are carefully coached to every last technical and stylistic detail, from the position of the head to the fingers and toes in every choreographed moment. The result is an impeccable presentation with an undeniable style.
Moreover, in the former Soviet Union, the most talented young skaters were funneled into an all-inclusive program that required no expenditure on the part of their families. This freed the athletes to focus solely on their training. At the same time, Soviet coaches were under tremendous pressure to produce winning teams. In today’s Russia, these factors have changed.
What’s further responsible for the westward tilt of ice dance prominence?
Who is responsible is the better question.
In 1990, a Russian ice dancer named Igor Shpilband defected to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. A former World Junior champion, he stopped competing with the untimely death of his partner in 1986. Once in the U.S., he was invited to work as a coach at the Detroit Skating Club.
In addition to on-ice work, Russian-born coaches combine off-ice physical conditioning – such as weight training and Pilates -- with hours of training in ballet, and sometimes ballroom dance. This results in a level of stylistic polish formerly rare among North American ice dance pairs.
“Igor Shpilband and [Russian-born coach] Marina Zoueva brought a new style to American ice dancing,” said Figure Skating Association spokesperson Barbara Reichert.
The talent, dedication and mental toughness of the dancers themselves completes the competitive success equation.
Word of Shpilband’s arrival soon spread. By 1992, he was choreographing for the U.S. team of Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, who eventually made him their head coach. The pair won the U.S. championships from 1996 through 1998, and their international competition results slowly but surely began to improve. The couple advanced from a 15th-place finish at the 1994 Olympics to seventh in 1998; World Championship results improved from 12th in 1993 to sixth in both 1997 and 1998.
Finally, it seemed, ice dance judges might be starting to take Americans seriously.
The slow but steady ascension continued with the success of four-time U.S. champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev. The pair won the coveted Four Continents Championship in 2000 and 2002, medaling at the same event in three other years.
The energetic U.S. team of Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who worked with Shpilband, among others, from 1996 to 2006, won four straight U.S. titles between 2004 and 2008. Their second-place finish at the 2006 Olympics represented the highest placement ever for a U.S. team and the first podium appearance for the U.S. since 1976 when Colleen O’Connor and James Milins won bronze.
By this time, Detroit had become practically a mecca for ice-dance hopefuls. Says Reichert, “Success breeds success, and the Detroit area has undoubtedly become the hotbed for the top ice dance programs in the world.”
When Virtue and Moir finished first in Vancouver, it was the first time Canadians had hit the Olympic podium since 1988.
Davis and White began working with Shpilband and Zoueva in 2005; Virtue and Moir were concurrently coached by the pair. The Canadian and American ice dance couples have each claimed two world titles to date.
After winning silver at the 2010 Olympics, Davis and White seem primed to grasp Olympic gold this month.