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Soviet takeover: How a pair of Russian coaches have transformed Ann Arbor into a hub for ice dancing's elite

Ariel Bond/Daily
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Magazine Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2010

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.