GANGNEUNG, South Korea — When Monday’s ice dancing short program came to its close, complete with wardrobe malfunction and a few obligatory scowls at the scoring, the top seven spots included three U.S. teams. Two of those, including siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, finished in the top four. One, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, would win a bronze medal if the competition ended there. It doesn’t, and the more important free dance will take place Tuesday (8 p.m. ET Monday).
Two-hundredths of a point separate Hubbell and Donohue from the Shibutanis. Two-and-a-half points separate Hubbell and Donohue from Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are in seventh. None of the Americans are within five points of first. But no other country has so many teams making legitimate pushes for the podium.
“I think that U.S. ice dance, how competitive it is, has really pushed us all to be the best we can be,” said Chock, who suffered a foot injury in the final seconds of Monday’s warm-up.
Of the top 25 teams in the International Skating Union’s world rankings, seven represent the United States, including three of the top 11. No other country has more than five teams in the top 25. Only one other, Russia, has two in the top 10.
The balance of Olympic ice dance power sways with the coaches who create its champions. The center of that universe has shifted many times, from the United States, to Russia, and now back again.
The quality of U.S. ice dancing is a product of the coaches it has drawn into its orbit — and the skaters they’ve drawn into theirs. Of the 24 teams that competed in the short dance Monday, 12 have either trained with U.S.-based coaches, still train with U.S.-based coaches, or are American. Leaders Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue of Canada trained in Michigan before jumping to Montreal. The fifth-place team, Italian duo Anna Cappellini and Luca Lonotte did, too. The British pair at No. 10, the Japanese pair (15), the Korean pair (16) … well, they all trained in the United States at some point, too.
“If you want to be successful in this sport, you have to go where the coaches are,” said Alexander Gamelin, an American who was naturalized as South Korean to compete with teammate Yura Min. “ … It’s just the experience and wisdom that the coaches have is really what’s making us improve.”
The pull began in the early 1990s, when a former Soviet ice dancer named Igor Shpilband defected to the United States. As the story goes, he hadn’t meant to, but carried the bags of some friends who did and worried the Soviet government would consider him an accomplice. He ended up in Detroit. He ended up coaching.
At that time, the Soviets and others had long since surpassed the United States in ice dancing prowess. But within a decade, Shpilband had coached a team to a world shampionship podium. In 2001, still operating in the Detroit area, he began working with coach and choreographer Marina Zueva.
From 1996 to 2012, Shpilband coached every U.S. ice dancing champion. They coached now-retired 2014 gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. They coached Moir and Virtue. They coached the Shibutanis. Eventually, he and Zueva split, both setting up shop in the Detroit area, both drawing top talent from around the world. Chock and Bates, Min and Gamelin, and others still work with him. Capellini and Lacotte still work with Zueva. Together, then separately, Shpilband and Zueva created an ice dancing hub with unparalleled gravity — in large part because of the proven, winning resources available.
“We have our main coach, Igor. Then we have a technical coach, a creative coach, a lift coach,” Min said. “We have the whole package and system there. I think that’s what’s helping us improve.”
Hubbell and Donohue train in Montreal. In fact, all three teams in medal position after the short dance now train there with Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer — a training experience former Shpilband pupil Moir called “one of the joys of our career.”
“It’s opened our eyes to a couple new things,” Moir said. “For us, it’s an honor to be a part of. It gives us a skill set that we’ll use the rest of our life, and we’ll be forever grateful for that.”
As with Shpilband and Zueva, success attracts talent, which in turn breeds success. Perhaps the training center of the ice dancing universe will migrate over the Canadian border should these teams consume the podium.
But even if a new hub emerges, the growth of the U.S. ice dancing scene has laid foundations for continued growth elsewhere. In Laurel, Md., for example, Russian coach Alexei Kiliakov is building a mini ice-dance empire of his own. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, and siblings Rachel and Michael Parsons, are 15th and 16th in the world rankings — though they could not break into that more experienced American top three before these Olympics. In so many sports — speedskating, for example — aspiring young American athletes often head outside the United States to find elite training. In ice dancing, the rest of the world comes to them.