Farce returns to ice dancing

Break up of top coaching duo has ripple effect at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

OMAHA, Neb. — In a sport many think of as soap operatic through all four of its disciplines, there is little doubt the most continuously bizarre tales came from ice dance.

At the 1998 Olympics, for example, the ice dance plot included threats of lawsuits, conspiracy theories, aunts turned hecklers at news conferences, name changes, dogs on accreditation pictures and extramarital affairs between rival athletes.

And the usual brazen judging favoritism.

The ice dance scene has been oddly free of such farce since an Italian team nearly came to blows at the 2006 Olympics — with the possible exception of the tasteless use of putatively Australian aboriginal costumes by a Russian couple at the 2010 Winter Games.

So it was almost reassuring to see the drama that surrounded the top teams in the strong U.S. ice dance program — as well as reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada — late last spring.

The coaching and business partnership of Russian emigres Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband, who had built U.S. ice dance into a medal-winning machine, suddenly came apart when the Canton, Mich., rink they worked at declared Shpilband persona non grata.

The rink manager told the Detroit Free Press that Shpilband's top skaters no longer wanted to work with him; Zoueva said Friday that Shpilband was trying to undercut her by keeping some teams for himself; and there was a lingering sense Zoueva felt she wasn't getting enough credit for the success of the teams they had worked with in tandem.

Caught in the middle was the most successful U.S. ice dance team in history, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who had trained with Shpilband and Zoueva together since 2005. In that time, the University of Michigan juniors had become the first world champion U.S. dancers and had won an Olympic silver medal, two world silver medals and four straight national titles.

"Short term, it was stressful," White said after he and Davis reached part one of a foregone conclusion — title No. 5 — by running up an 8.22-point lead over Madison Chock and Evan Bates after Friday's short dance. "Dealing with everything that was not figure skating-related was strange for us."

Davis and White stuck with Zoueva, as did the Canadians and the brother-sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, surprising world bronze medalists in 2011. The Shibutanis are third after the short dance, 1.17 points from second place.

"We definitely felt most comfortable with Marina," White said.

Chock and Bates, fifth at last year's nationals, chose Shpilband, who moved to a rink in nearby Novi, Mich.

"It was a very difficult situation for us," Bates said. "We evaluated all the options and (decided) we would be more of a priority for Igor. Being his only American team has served us well."

White said he and Davis no longer have much of a relationship with Shpilband. Working only with Zoueva has served them well. They are unbeaten this season, having won two Grand Prix events and then defeating Virtue-Moir in both phases of the Grand Prix Final.

Shpilband told a Russian website, "I hold no grudge against the skaters. They are victims in this situation."

None of the skaters, alas, are adding to the soap opera with their words.

"It's unfortunate because it's the coaches, not the skaters," White said. "But we have to answer the questions about it. It is something we have to put up with, and we are glad there hasn't been more and hope there isn't any more."

It's not unfortunate. It's ice dance.

(For results of the men's short program Friday night, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports)

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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