After Monday’s short dance, the first portion of the Olympic ice dancing competition, three American teams are among the top seven. Two American teams sit in the top four, led by Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in third. Two hundredths of a point separate that duo from Maia and Alex Shibutani, in fourth. Less than 2½ points separate the Shibutanis from Madison Chock and Evan Bates in seventh.
They are all in medal position. They all came here with good reason to think they would be. Less than a point separated those teams at the U.S. national championships, where Hubbell and Donohue earned a narrow win.
“I think that U.S. ice dance, how competitive it is, has really pushed us all to be the best we can be,” Chock said, “and to be as strong, and work as hard as we possibly can.”
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.
But the quality of U.S. ice dancing pulls more than just Americans into its orbit. 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. 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,” Alexander Gamelin, an American who was naturalized as South Korean to compete with teammate Yura Min, said. “It’s just the experience and wisdom that the coaches have is really what’s making us improve.”
The pull began in the early ’90s, when a former Soviet ice dancer named Igor Shpilband defected to the United States. As the story goes, he hadn’t meant to do that 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 championship 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. All of them. 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. The second-place team, French skaters Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, train there with them, too.
“We’re sitting in a pretty incredible position, right behind our training mates,” said Hubbell, who combines with Donohue in a memorably steamy free skate that might be the best the Americans have to offer, “and it’s giving us a lot of confidence.”
To be fair, most of the field finished somewhere “right behind their training mates.” Teams pushing for the top Olympic spots and teams hoping to make a jump to that level — like the Czech team of Courtney Mansourova and Michal Ceska, which didn’t finish in the top 20 and therefore did not qualify for the free skate Tuesday — all feel the tug of U.S.-based training.
“I think it’s awesome because you have always someone to push you, even on the hard days when you don’t feel 100 percent,” Ceska said. “There’s always someone to look up at.”
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