For years, Ilia Averbukh wrestled with his decision. He knew he had made the right choice with his heart, but he could not be certain he had done the same with his mind.
Just what might have been had he remained partners with Marina Anissina, who became an Olympic gold medalist? Even as a silver medal dangled around his neck at the Salt Lake City Olympics and he watched Anissina and new partner Gwendal Peizerat celebrate with the gold, he still was not sure whether he had done the right thing 11 years ago.
But now, as he and his wife, Irina Lobacheva, approach the final competition of their career -- the world championships in Washington -- Averbukh safely can say he has chosen wisely. Lobacheva and Averbukh are the reigning world champions and the favorites in the ice dancing event, having won the European championships and the Grand Prix final. Life for them, they believe, is only going to get better.
"We're at the top of the mountain now and that's good," Averbukh said while sitting in a rinkside coffee shop after a recent practice at the University of Delaware. "After the world championships last year in Nagano, we thought, 'We'll skate one more year.' We wanted a European title and we've never won a Grand Prix final. Those were our dreams. Now we have all those titles and we can be done."
Lobacheva, a dainty-looking blonde, speaks little English but nodded her head as her husband spoke of their future plans. "I feel very happy," she said in Russian, "because a new life is beginning for us."
As certain as they said they were about leaving Olympic-eligible skating, the timing of their decision is surprising. Typically, ice dancers train for years to make it to the top and hope to stay there until the Olympics. Now that Anissina and Peizerat have left the Olympic scene, Lobacheva and Averbukh likely would be among the top contenders to win the gold medal in 2006.
But Lobacheva and Averbukh have other plans.
After their free dance in Washington, where they hope to successfully defend their world crown, they will return to Moscow and tour in Russia. They are considering coaching and Averbukh is interested in becoming a TV skating commentator. They will not, they said, compete anymore. They want to be reunited with their family, dine at their favorite Russian restaurants and start a family.
Dealing with ice skating politics and competing under restrictive rules does not seem to interest them anymore. The Olympics in Salt Lake City were tarnished by scandal. There has been an ongoing investigation about a possible link between Anissina and Peizerat with the Russian mafia in a vote-swapping deal to win the gold.
Since the Olympics, the International Skating Union has experimented with a controversial scoring system in which the judges remain anonymous and only nine of the 14 judges' marks are used.
"I think there are many questions right now," Averbukh said. "But the good part is that something has changed. For me, one question is why 14 judges? If five judges place me first and nine place me second and I can still win, that's not right. The system is not so much interesting for the public now either, because they don't understand what's going on."
When asked if he will miss the judging, Averbukh shook his head and said, "No, I will not."
He and his wife are concerned, however, about the future of ice dancing because International Olympic Committee officials have considered removing the sport from the Games.
"If it goes away from the Olympics, ice dancing will die and that's very bad," Averbukh said. "It's hard because in ice dancing the rules are not the same as in singles skating."
As the judging system continues to evolve, the couple continue to win. So when they told their coaches, 1980 Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Kasponosov, they planned to retire, the news came as a bit of a surprise.
"It will be so hard for me because my skaters are a big part of my life and it will be very difficult to understand that one day it will be finished," Linichuk said. "Right now they say they are done. But you never know."
It is little wonder that they are ready for new challenges. Their competitive career has had its share of ups and downs.
In the beginning, Averbukh struggled over splitting up with Anissina and starting over with Lobacheva, whom he was dating at the time. Later, they had to decide if they would continue to train in Russia or follow their coaches to Delaware. And then, Lobacheva battled a major knee injury.
"As a coach," Linichuk said, "you must help with everything. You are not only coach. You are mother, father, friend and even doctor."
Linichuk tried very hard to keep Averbukh and Anissina together but eventually had to give up when Averbukh said he could no longer train with her. And because Averbukh was in love with Lobacheva, working with Anissina became increasingly more difficult.
"I had good results with Marina, but in practice we had too much conflict," Averbukh said. "Why? I don't know why. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe it was hers, but it didn't work out."
Averbukh would keep a close watch on ice dancing results and it bothered him that Anissina remained on top of the dance world while he and Lobacheva were much lower in the rankings. As much as he loved Lobacheva and enjoyed skating with her, it pained him not to have better results.
"For a while, it was very difficult for me," said Averbukh, who married Lobacheva in 1995. "It was difficult to compete against Marina, but now it's okay. We're actually very friendly with her now. After these world championships, we will go to France to visit her."
In the 1993-94 season, Lobacheva and Averbukh were second at Russian nationals and 13th at the world championships. University of Delaware and U.S. pairs coach Ron Ludington hired the couple's coaches to work at the rink. The coaches came, but they couldn't persuade the couple to leave Russia.
The following season, they fell to third at Russian nationals and dropped to 15th place in the world. It was enough to send them packing for Delaware. Still, they missed Russia immensely. The move to Delaware was difficult and they felt isolated. In Moscow, they had family and friends and big-city living with the ballet and theater easily within reach. In Delaware, they had skating.
Although they weren't entirely happy being in the United States, their results improved dramatically. They jumped to sixth place in the world in 1996. By 1999, they became Russian champions. Two years later, they won their first world medal, the bronze, and they entered the Olympic season as medal contenders.
But in September 2001, Lobacheva injured her knee while practicing a basic move. The injury forced them to miss the Grand Prix season, an important showcase for the Olympics, but they earned silver medals at the Games. They lost the gold by one judge.
"It was a difficult time, but our silver medal is like gold for us because she had such a big injury," Averbukh said.
Lobacheva had knee surgery last summer and was off the ice for three months. Once she was healthy, they won every competition they entered.
Last on their list is worlds. Their toughest competitors will be Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, who also are bidding farewell to Olympic-style skating.
"We are happy right now," Averbukh said. "In Russia, there are so many roads open for us."