The drama never ends in ice dance, even in the offseason.
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Igor Shpilband, largely responsible for taking the United States from irrelevance to dominance in ice dance, is no longer welcome at the rink where he worked or coaching his top skaters. Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White and 2011 world bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani announced Monday they will now train solely with Marina Zoueva, Shpilband’s former coaching partner.
"Igor and I built this program together, and it was great. Unfortunately, we are going in different directions," Zoueva said in a statement released by U.S. Figure Skating. "The skaters are very talented and focused. They have very strong work ethics, and together we will move forward."
The Detroit Free Press first reported Sunday that Shpilband had been dismissed as ice dance director at the Arctic Edge Arena, in part because his top teams felt "Igor wasn’t there any more for them." In addition to Davis and White and the Shibutanis, Shpilband and Zoueva coached reigning Olympic and world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
"There was a lot of issues," Craig O’Neill, general manager at the Arctic Edge, told the Free Press. "This has been going on for a couple of months. He’s not focused with the kids. What it came down to was the kids didn’t want to skate there (in Canton) any more with Igor. Either they were leaving or Igor was leaving."
Shpilband declined comment when reached Monday by The Associated Press.
"Just give me a little bit of days to regroup," Shpilband said. "It’s shocking to me. I’m still trying to figure out what happened and why."
U.S. teams won 16 medals in the 25 years after ice dance was added to the world championships in 1952, and Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns were bronze medalists at the 1976 Games, when ice dance made its Olympic debut. As the sport’s balance of power shifted east, and politics and personal allegiances came to matter as much as talent, however, U.S. ice dancers became less and less relevant. Aside from Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert’s three straight bronze medals from 1983 to ’85, Americans wouldn’t be seen on the podium for two decades. They were such a non-factor that cracking the top 10 was considered a good result.
But that began to change after Shpilband arrived in the Detroit area after defecting from the Soviet Union in 1990. Liz Punsalan and Jerod Swallow finished sixth at the 1997 world championships, the best result for a U.S. team since 1990. In 2005, another Shpilband team, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, won the silver medal, the first time a U.S. team had been on the podium in 20 years. The following year, Belbin and Agosto won the silver medal at the Turin Olympics.
Promising young dancers flocked to the Detroit area to work with Shpilband and Zoueva, who began coaching together in 2001, and their teams dominated competitions at home and abroad. Shpilband has coached every U.S. champion since 1996. According to the Free Press, Shpilband and Zoueva’s teams have won seven of the nine medals at worlds over the past three years, including a sweep in 2011 when Davis and White became the first U.S. team to win the world dance title.
"We hold the firm conviction that Igor’s expertise and investment in our career have been integral to our success," Davis said in the statement from U.S. Figure Skating. "We will have nothing but fond memories and sincere appreciation for our time with Igor."