Canadian OK on the ice
Figure skating coach Igor Shpilband shared the secrets of his start team with the MK.
The Moscow Grand Prix event has once again convinced everyone that ice dancing is staging a riveting intrigue. No fewer than five teams are credibly staking their claim to leadership in the pre-Olympic season. Three of them have already won events of the commercial series: Frenchmen Isabelle Delobel/ Olivier Schoenfelder (twice), and Russians Oksana Domnina/ Maxim Shabalin and Yana Khokhlova/ Sergei Novitski. Americans Tanith Belbin/ Benjamin Agosto have checked in with a silver, and the world is yet to see the Canadian team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
Meanwhile, it is this very team to which many are already reserving a place on Olympic podium. Last season, the young Canadians cut into the ice dance queue to take the World silver, especially since the Olympics will take place in their homeland. We’ve talked to the Canadians’ coach Igor SHPILBAND about the reasons why Tessa and Scott are missing the early season, as well as figure jealousy and the upcoming season.
Igor, what happened? Commercial series events, a dress rehearsal for the World figure parade, are taking place without your students…
We’re not hiding or intriguing, Tessa just needed to get a surgery. It went well, the rehabilitation was very good, so while Tessa isn’t yet back to her full strength, she’s skating actively. We plan for her to recuperate fully by Cup of Canada, and then take part in the “Four Continents”.
What was Virtue’s injury?
I won’t go into the medical jargon, but simply put the vessels in her leg were blocked. Tessa skated through serious pain. We only found out about it later – she put up with it for a long time without saying anything, that’s just how she is…
A partisan so to speak?
The Olympic Games that already occupy everyone’s mind will take place in Vancouver, the team is from Canada, so…
What are the goals? Everyone has the same goals. I can attest to the teams being absolutely concentrated on the hundred-percent result. My students in general are very hard working, both Tessa and Scott and Americans Charlie White and Meryl Davis. I won’t shy away from it – both teams are quite remarkable.
Let me put it a little different – would it perhaps be better for the Canadians not to have the Olympics at home. Home Games lead to home talk. Additional psychological weight is never good.
You know, psychological stability is a tricky thing… I think all the coaches have come by today to tell me, “My G-d, Charlie is the one skater we’d never expect this from! He is so stable!” Did you see how Charlie fell in the Original Dance – three times! There was no technical problem there. He just really wanted to demonstrate everything he’s capable of. Three falls in one dance! That was just hard to imagine. So anything can happen.
The young Canadians, just 18 and 20 years old, have broken the queue to take the podium, briskly brushing aside those who’ve long worked toward it… Frankly, it sounds like ice dance fantasy! Yet it did happen. They won Junior Worlds in 2006, then made the top six at the senior Worlds, and then just took the World “silver”.
No specialist could dare say that this team became silver World medalists by accident or undeservedly. Those are very talented kids. By the way, they’ve been skating together for over a decade now. They started early, and now they have everything – experience, international exposure…
What’s their biggest advantage?
They skate from their hearts; they feel the music with their souls and heart, both of them. They have an amazing connection. That’s really rare.
This season was marked by two big coach changes. Oksana Domnina and maxim Shabalin left Alexei Gorshkov, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto left you. You were the one who made them the Olympic medalists in Turin. Both teams are now with Natalya Linichuk. How did you take it?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care – talking about mine, of course. I was saddened and dismayed; I did, after all, work with those kids for ten years. How can you be indifferent? Of course it hurts me, why fib? I’ve put so much effort there. You also do get attached to your athletes.
The Russian team’s move came out of nowhere for the audience and even for the coach; it all happened in a flash. Were you prepared for the changes?
When Tanith and Ben returned from the Worlds where they had such bad luck, we had a little conference; they then went on tour, and already then they said they’d be thinking about their future. So their move wasn’t a complete surprise to me. Yet they no longer asked me for advice. Though they did everything properly, they thanked me, and we part ways amicably.
Do you understand why they left?
I understand it was tough for them. There were different reasons for this, and I won’t talk about the personal issues of Tanith and Ben as it wouldn’t be ethical, especially now. However, there were issues. They are real fighters. Of course, it was tough for them to see younger teams ascend so fast and be able to do so much.
Perhaps this isn’t a fully proper question, but you know them better than anyone, including the faults one needs to hide and try to turn into advantages. So, did the skaters make the right choice in choosing a coach?
Of course I can’t answer that. I can say that I am obviously watching them. I was them at Skate America, and was especially sensitive to what’s changed. I wanted to see some improvements. However, it was the start of the season, it it’s still tough to call. When you don’t see a team for a while, you tend to see it differently. It’s hard to for me be objective, because I used to see them every day, and now I notice some things more than others.
Is it realistic to prepare to strong teams for the Olympics? That’s what Natalya Linichuk is trying to do, and it’s something you’re well familiar with. What if Tanith and Ben remained with you? Isn’t it impossible to tear your soul in two?
Well, work with elite teams is not about tearing your soul to pieces. You give the max to each team. It’s not like I just have two teams. And I can’t say that I favor someone, that I give everything to one and nothing to others. We now have a junior team that made it into the Grand Prix Final, and Marina Zueva and I try to work with everyone equally. What else is possible? The coach can’t save himself for something… Everything for everyone, that’s the only way it’s done. If it’s this much for this one, and a bit less to this, especially if it’s a conscious thing… I’ve never done it like that. If the coach is capable of giving his all, he can have two, three, or eight teams, that’s what I think.
How many do you have today?
Twelve, I think.
So you’re not even sure?
Yeah, I’d need to count.
How often does the drive to lead translate into active jealousy in such groups?
It depends on the athletes and on the atmosphere in the group. If the coach doesn’t have favorites, then the atmosphere remains healthy.
Do you like the nerve-racking pre-Olympic season?
What are you going to do with it? It’s a necessity, you can’t hide from it. It’s better to have all the negative stuff remain there as opposed to hitting you over the head on the eve of the Games. The Olympic season itself, of course, is unique. It’s never like other seasons. You always try your hardest for each season, but here there is a colossal responsibility, attention, and just a different attitude. The athletes, for instance, normally go on tour, which makes sense as they need to earn money, but before the Games they need to limit this as well. They need to spend more time practicing.
Skating with their hearts and souls, can the Canadians offer you something unique in preparation?
You know, they are very responsible, we don’t even have those issues in our group, but I think a good coach should be listening to the athletes. When a skater gets to a high level, he becomes very cognizant of his body and his abilities. Of course, some athletes need more motivation than others. We have no problems in that area. Oftentimes, we should even dampen the fire a bit – I should have held Charlie back a bit today… I don’t know, there are no ready recipes, and you need to learn alongside your teams and continually increase your coaching baggage. I’ve been lucky, though – I used to study with Lyudmila Pakhomova, and then worked with Tatiana Tarasova in the ice theater. Such work doesn’t go in vain. Also, the competitors can teach you a lot. Each year, it’s interesting to see others’ programs. I respect my competitors, and try to teach to skaters to respect their colleagues. Each team has something good and unique, and you can snatch something useful from every single one.