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Monday, May 2, 2011
Coaches' juggling act a remarkable feat

By Bonnie D. Ford

The biggest takeaway from last week's figure skating world championships was the confirmation that ice dancing coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva are not only in a class of their own but constitute a sort of border-less country unto themselves. Shpilband-Zoueva Nation's accomplishment in putting three teams on the podium is obvious. What's more subtle and admirable is the juggling act that has to go on behind the scenes.

This is no cookie-cutter operation. Each of the three medal tandems -- newly crowned world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S., runners-up and 2010 Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and senior world debutants Maia and Alex Shibutani of the U.S. -- displays a distinct style that plays to its strengths. How the Russian-born coaches pull this off in one suburban Detroit rink, giving each duo customized treatment and making sure they have the time and attention they deserve in an apparently rancor-free atmosphere, is nothing short of remarkable.

The New York Times' Christopher Clarey, who was in Moscow, had a thoughtful take. As he noted, the fact there is no evident intra-rink sniping or jealousy between the two top teams seems too good to be true, but until otherwise proven, has to be taken at face value. Clearly the skaters also deserve credit for that peaceful coexistence and for pushing to be original rather than derivatives of each other.

Davis and White's win rewards both career perseverance and the fact they put themselves on the line all season. Imagine the psychological erosion if Virtue and Moir had been re-coronated after competing only once in 2010-11 (at the Four Continents Championships, where they were unable to complete their free dance when Virtue injured herself). The scoring system is supposed to be all about what's on the ice in that moment and not about history or perfect attendance, but subjectively, this outcome paves the way for a more interesting and unpredictable rivalry through the next Olympics. Virtue and Moir were indisputably spectacular, and it took a perfect performance by Davis and White to top them.

Olympic champion Kim Yu-na's reappearance at worlds was harder to parse. A silver medal isn't chopped liver, but after more than a year away, why not just start fresh this autumn? Unlike the Canadian ice dancers, Kim was competitively idle this year by choice and endured a difficult and very public split with coach Brian Orser. She had little to gain and a lot to lose -- specifically, confidence and mystique -- by skating in Moscow. Kim could not stop weeping during the awards ceremony. According to reports in the Asian press, she is apparently considering skipping the Grand Prix circuit next fall. I have to wonder if a strategy of less competition is the right one for her.

Finally, in the spilled milk category, we have the U.S. women's results: Alissa Czisny's fifth and Rachael Flatt's 12th, not close to the lucky total of 13 that would have regained a third slot at worlds for the country. Flatt's ex post facto revelation that she had been diagnosed with a stress fracture on the eve of her departure for Moscow has lit a brush fire of speculation about whether it was irresponsible for her to compete both for her own health and the U.S. team's future.

It's always risky business to Monday-morning quarterback these injury decisions. But in an interview Monday with the Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh, Mirai Nagasu's coach, Frank Carroll, forcefully insisted she would have saved the bacon had she been sent as an alternate for the injured Flatt, a strong statement, seeing as teacher and pupil were not always in sync this season.

In a separate interview with Hersh, Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, explained the decision. The conversation on this one is apt to further extend an already overly lengthy season.