Nobody produces figure skaters like the Soviets. Athletically unparalleled and artistically unrivaled, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, has taken home all but two Olympic ice dance gold medals since the sport first appeared in the games in 1976. In comparison, the United States has only claimed bronze and silver — never gold.
That could all change this winter in Vancouver, where two pairs of skaters from the University of Michigan are expected to challenge Russia’s dominance in the sport.
Regardless of their Olympic performance this year, these skaters — Charlie White and Meryl Davis, who three weeks ago won gold medal at the U.S. Ice Dancing championships, and Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates — have already helped put Ann Arbor on the map for world-class skating. But Ann Arbor’s rise to the skating elite started long before these two pairs enrolled at the University.
The past two decades have seen an influx of former Soviet ice dance champions streaming into Metro Detroit ice rinks to train the state’s already vast supply of figure skating talent. Through their efforts, these coaches and choreographers have helped transform Michigan, and Ann Arbor, into an ice-dancing powerhouse.
Yaroslava Nechaeva and Yuri Chesnichenko, known affectionately as Yasa and Yuri to their athletes, competed up until the 1992 World Junior Figure Skating Championships — where they earned silver medals — before trading Moscow for Ann Arbor.
Glancing over the banners hanging on the wall at the Olympic rink in the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, the tremendous progress they have made in just one decade is undeniable.
Perhaps there is no better example of the quick results this elite training style produces than Yasa and Yuri’s batch of up-and-coming skaters at the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club. Of all the teams coming out of the Ice Cube, Samuelson and Bates best exemplify what can happen when a strong technical background and rigorous dance training combine on the ice.
Samuelson and Bates are sophomores at the University, and the third team selected to represent the United States in ice dance at the Vancouver Olympics this month. The rise of Samuelson and Bates to international prominence was propelled largely through the training they received from Yasa and Yuri.
“The best teams have Russian coaches,” Eric Bates, Evan Bates’ father and a University professor of Internal Medicine, said in a phone interview last week. “It’s classic Russian style that they have been fortunate to be trained in from the beginning. It gives them technical benefits versus other couples that don’t have Russian coaches, or that have Russian coaches in the middle of their career rather than from the beginning.”
Ask Yuri if there is a formula to the success of these young American ice dance teams and he chuckles. Though he doesn’t think there is a formula, per se, for the success of his skaters, it’s clear they share many things in common — they all skate with the power and grace that reflects a clear Russian influence.
Ice dance teams in the United States are paired in much the same way the Soviets paired their Olympic champions. As Yasa and Yuri were paired as young skaters in Moscow, so were Bates and Samuelson, and the expectations were just as high. Gold was in the future.
“They had this girl in Novi who they thought would be a good match,” Eric Bates said referring to Samuelson. “That’s how they do it in this business; it’s like an arranged marriage.”
The training Bates and Samuelson undergo to reach the elite ice dance level requires true dedication to an increasingly competitive sport. The pressure of high level skating and schooling exacerbates certain stresses that all students feel at one point or another. To avoid being super seniors for seven or eight years, Samuelson and Bates take spring classes during the time they’re learning their new dances.
As the pair practiced last week, they looked tired and overwhelmed. Going through a section of their American country original dance with the most difficult moves, Yasa was focused on the range of extension of Samuelson’s arm in one of the elements.
The team was red-faced after a few run-throughs, but at the end Yasa was satisfied. This attention to detail is essential for success. Every extension, edge and position is calculated and controlled, accounted for and perfected.
Russian training provides a seemingly unbeatable backdrop of skating skills, but for generations, Russian teams were on top because of their innovative and creative programs. For Yasa and Yuri, that means creating programs that highlight the personalities of their students and listening to advice coming from the International Skating Union.
When Yasa heard that the ISU was “moving in a direction away from the depressing and dying pieces of the free dance” that dominated the sport for years, they selected the romantic “Canto Della Terra” for what they hoped would be Bates and Samuelson’s first Olympic free dance. It has been a successful program, as it secured their place on the Olympic team at the national championships last month.
It’s the partnership between teams Bates-Samuelson and Yasa-Yuri that has put the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club on the map. Samuelson and Bates’s unique presentations of the programs that Yasa and Yuri tailor to fit their personalities and highlight their skating have garnered international attention in the short amount of time they have been competing at the senior level. The drive forward has brought the team to achieve what Bates calls “the greatest sports dream.”
“I think a lot of the supporting comes from each other and a lot of the pushing comes from the coaches,” Alexis Bates, Evan Bates’ sister said in a phone interview last week. “The end is the same. They are the same. They are one team. It’s not Bates or Samuelson. It’s Bates and Samuelson.”
Precocious as they are, Samuelson and Bates will soak up this first Olympic experience, knowing that their youth grants them the possibility of future Olympic trips — at least two more would not be out of the question. As they close this chapter of their short careers, a unique opportunity sits on the horizon for Yasa and Yuri and their protégés.
In four years time, the best ice dancers in the world will travel to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Following the Vancouver games, Samuelson and Bates will again begin preparing for a future Olympic medal bid. The possibility of taking skaters back to Russia for the games raises complicated emotions for their coaches.
“We both feel like very new citizens,” Yasa said. “We’re both very excited to be United States citizens, but also we have Russian roots. I think it would be great to go back to Russia and bring the results of our work from so many years and to compete against the coaches that we trained with and the skaters that we skated with. It would be a wonderful experience for us.”