Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin are the most unknown factor in the world of ice dancing for this season. How has Shabalin recovered from his knee injury that kept the couple out of the 2008 World Championships? What effect will their rather unexpected change of coaches and their move from Alexei Gorshkov in Russia to Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanossov in the U.S. have?
The Russians are even training with their close rivals Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto on the same ice with the same coaches. Now the European Champions are looking for a fresh start after Shabalin’s injury and change of coaches.
Although last season brought the team their best results thus far, they paid a high price for their success. Shabalin was already suffering from a meniscus injury from the spring of 2007 and had underwent surgery on his right knee. He then came down with appendicitis and had another surgery later in September.
Nevertheless, the Russians worked hard to be ready for the Grand Prix, easily qualifying for the Final and winning the event. Shabalin, however, began to have problems with his other knee and needed surgery again in December. He managed to come back for Europeans, and although he was in pain and limped off the ice, the couple bested France’s Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder to win their first European title. Perhaps Shabalin had risked too much.
Although Shabalin went into special therapy for his knee right after Europeans, the problems continued. He was in constant pain and not able to fully train. Finally, the European Champions and top contenders for the World Championships had to withdraw a few days before Worlds kicked off in Gothenburg, Sweden.
News on the couple were sparse in the weeks after Worlds. At the end of April, Shabalin went into rehab in a hospital in Munich, Germany for about five weeks. His partner was left to train on her own in Odintsovo near Moscow. The couple had been training there ever since their longtime coach Alexei Gorshkov teamed them up in spring 2002.
Shabalin finally returned from Germany in June, and the European Champions were expected to resume practice and build up their new programs with Gorshkov and choreographer Sergei Petukhov. Suddenly, however, they announced a change of coaches and went to Linichuk and Karpanossov. What happened?
“We took our final decision on June 12 when Maxim had come back from Germany,” revealed Domnina. “But actually the question started to come up in the middle of May. Why? It’s very hard to answer this question, because there were a lot of things happening. It had to be, and it’s probably the best for us. Time will show.”
Currently the team’s goals are to compete at the 2010 Olympic Games. “We are striving for that as we overcome many difficulties,” admitted Domnina. “It was very hard for us to take this decision. We had to leave behind everything – our families, friends, our dear coach who was like a second father to me. We had to leave behind Odintsovo and the ice rink which was, and I hope always will be, our home. We had to leave behind everyone who supported us so much, and that is not easy. I hope that all these sacrifices will pay off one day. We will know at the end of the season if our move was worth it or not.”
In the Russian figure skating circles, everybody including former coach Alexei Gorshkov is convinced that the Russian Figure Skating Federation under president Valentin Piseev more or less “ordered” Domnina and Shabalin to change coaches. Apparently the federation officials felt that the ice dancers needed new input and would have better chances at the Olympic Games under the tutelage of Linichuk and Karpanossov. They not only coached Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov to Olympic Gold, but coached Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov and Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh to World titles and Olympic silver medals.
Whatever the exact reason behind the move, the Russians have been training in Aston, Penn., since June. “The work there is completely different!” Domnina pointed out. “It’s a different technique, a different relationship, a different training mode. The first month we were just learning to skate again, like children who are in first grade and learning how to read. But while the children have ten years to go through school, we had only one month! And we had to forget that we went through the whole program before and had to get used to the new program. I can’t even tell if I like it or not because it’s a completely different understanding of figure skating. It’s not better or worse. Everywhere there are plusses and minuses. The most important thing is the result.”
The move seemed also surprising as close rivals Belbin and Agosto had switched to Linichuk and Karpanossov in April. “When we came here, we knew that they were training here, therefore we saw the advantage of it and that’s it!” Domnina stated. “Competition is stimulating the process of training. We don’t have any problems with sharing the attention of the coaches because when we are working with Natalia (Linichuk), they are training with Gennadi (Karpanossov) and the other way around.”
The team not only had to get used to new coaches and different training methods, but also to transition into a completely different environment when they left Russia. “We don’t really get used to the life in the USA,” revealed Domnina. “I decided for myself that I’m in a training camp here. Russia is my home.” The skaters are renting two apartments, a 15-minute drive from the ice rink. “The living conditions are good, but it’s a little bit boring here,” said Domnina. “It’s 45 minutes to Philadelphia and two and a half hours to New York. On the weekends I sometimes go there because there is nothing else to do.”
Another question mark is Shabalin’s health. He resumed training at the end of June when the couple moved to Aston. “The recovery is still going on,” shared Domnina. “The first two months here, Maxim went everyday in between practices to see the doctor. Now he is going three times a week. It’s getting better, but the recovery is happening slowly.” Shabalin is treated by the same doctor who helped Evgeni Platov when he had problems with his knees. “I really hope that Maxim will recover completely, because you can’t say that he will forget the pain,” said Domnina. “Of course he is training and he is doing a great job.”
The Russians have two new programs – Dmitri Shostakovich’s beautiful Waltz from the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1 from 1934 for the original dance, and a selection from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus for the free dance. “We were searching a long time for the music, because you are always looking for something unique and unrepeated,” Domnina explained. “Spartacus has been rarely used in ice dancing. Usually it’s used in pairs skating.”
Domnina joked that since ice dancing is slowly being turned into pair skating, they decided to use what they felt was suitable music for this discipline of figure skating. The couple picked the Waltz for the original dance as they feel that most of the others are using rhythms like the Quickstep and Foxtrot. “I don’t like these rhythms and we want to set ourselves apart, so we chose this music,” she added.
Currently Domnina and Shabalin are scheduled for the Grand Prix Cup of China and Cup of Russia in November and hope to be ready to attend them. “We are preparing for our competitions and we really want to go, but everything depends on Maxim and our preparations,” Domnina said.
It will be an interesting pre-Olympic season in ice dance with veterans and reigning World Champions Delobel and Schoenfelder staying in, shooting stars Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir hoping to continue their ascent, Belbin and Agosto looking to rebound from their disappointing fourth-place finish at Worlds, and Domnina and Shabalin ready to mix up everything when they return to competition. They will also have to watch out for their teammates Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, who claimed the bronze at Worlds last year.