New Yorker to ice dance for Lithuania at Olympics
NEW YORK (AP) The flights from New York to Sochi won’t come close to comparing with the journey Isabella Tobias already has taken to earn an Olympic berth.
Born and raised in New York, Tobias has teamed with Lithuanian ice dancer Deividas Stagniunas since 2010. As they moved up through the world ranks, they focused on qualifying for the 2014 Olympics. After finishing 15th at the world championships in March, the spot was theirs.
Except for one catch: The Lithuanian government would not grant Tobias citizenship, and without it, she and Stagniunas could not compete on Olympic ice.
IOC rules, unlike those used by the ISU to govern figure skating, require that all competitors have citizenship in the country they represent. And Lithuania, despite having no other world-class ice dancers, already had turned down Tobias before the couple competed at worlds.
”I went to Lithuania in the winter of 2012 and was interviewed by the immigration council and cried my eyes out to them begging them to give me the citizenship,” the 22-year-old Tobias said. ”I learned the language, and it’s a very difficult language. And they sat me down with a Lithuanian teacher and asked me about 60 questions in Lithuania. I was not allowed to speak any English at all; I never felt so terrified in my life.
”I actually passed the exam and we left and we were just hoping for the best.”
They got the worst. She was denied citizenship on Jan. 7, 2013, because, the government said, it could not be awarded based on ”future merit,” such as earning an Olympic berth.
Already reeling from previous injuries to Stagniunas, then his mother’s death from breast cancer and the death of Isabella’s grandfather, they debated whether to pursue their Olympic goal. Should they even bother going to last year’s worlds?
”Deividas and I had to meet and really talk it out,” she said. ”Do we feel we have it in us to keep skating without anger and resentment and not let this defeat us? We just decided: `What do you want to be as an athlete?’ A champion. An athlete and a champion never lets anything defeat them. Let’s just show them they are wrong and they should want us on their Olympic team. Let’s prove we deserve to go to the Olympics by qualifying.”
Which they did last March. But still, no action from Lithuania, which has a strong sporting history in basketball, but not much else. Certainly not from the Winter Games.
Tobias and Stagniunas went back to full-time training in Michigan with renowned ice dance coach Igor Shpilband, who encouraged them to keep at it.
But the season began poorly with a weak performance at Skate America. Tobias said she was depressed by the lack of movement toward her citizenship, for which she once again had applied.
”There was an Olympic spot for them and there was no other Lithuanian female ice dancer,” said Isabella’s mother, Maddie.
On Dec. 2, Tobias woke up to find her cellphone loaded with text messages – of congratulations. She called Maddie, waking her up, asking her mom to check Lithuanian news websites.
Sure enough, Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite had announced that Tobias was granted citizenship, citing the skater’s diligence in pursuing it, and the ”exceptional merit” of having earned an Olympic berth. No mention was made of her learning the language nor making several trips to the country for interviews that were more like interrogations.
Tobias called Stagniunas, who apparently didn’t immediately get the significance of the news.
”I yelled, `We did it, we did it,”’ she recalled. ”He said, `OK, that is great. I am going back to sleep and will see you at the rink.’ It took a longer time to dawn him.”
Shpilband couldn’t hide his excitement, praising the couple for their perseverance.
Now, it’s on to Sochi.
”We’re so thankful and grateful,” Tobias said. ”It was such a shock. We were so used to being disappointed, so used to being the only ones that couldn’t go because of this situation. This was somebody making the decision about you. It should be if you qualified for the Olympics, you should go to the Olympics. It is sports. It has nothing to do with passports.”