GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There’s a Russian skating for Australia who at first thought she was headed to Austria.
Two Americans are ice dancing for host South Korea. Another American is competing for Brazil. Four members of the Israeli team are not natives.
The German pair that won the gold medal has a woman, Aliona Savchenko, from Ukraine, and a man, Bruno Massot, from France.
And get this: a Brit and an Aussie are entered in ice dance representing the Russians, who once ruled that discipline.
Some three dozen skaters in the Pyeongchang Games are performing for nations in which they were not born.
“Nine years ago, I retired from figure skating,” says Israel’s Alexei Bychenko, who previously represented his homeland, Ukraine. “After Vancouver (Olympics in 2010, which he did not qualify for), I took one year break, and then my coach called me and asked if I wanted to skate in an Olympics? I couldn’t do it for Ukraine, but we talked about my options and that I have a Jewish family.
“Then I knew my route.”
Bychenko contacted the Israeli federation — the country has made great strides in the sport — and was told it was doable. He began to train there, got his citizenship and wound up 11th in the men’s event.
His “countrymen,” Adel Tankova and Ronald Zilberberg, will ice dance this week. She is from Ukraine and has Jewish roots, too.
“We trained at the same place,” he says. “I had another partner in dance, and Adel had another in pairs. We broke up with each partner and our coach said ‘Why not try it?’ For dance, not pairs; me jump? No, no, I can’t jump for my life.
“Finding a new partner is really hard, especially if you want to skate for Israel. You have to find someone who has the same heritage to go to the Olympics.”
Spain’s Sara Hurtado had success with a previous ice dance partner. When they split, like many ice dancers of the last few decades, she found a new partner in Russia, Kirill Khaliavin.
Such pairings often fail because the level of performance doesn’t match for each skater. Yet it worked immediately for them.
“We had the same vision about achieving things. And we bonded more as a team because of that than because of the technical (moves). We shared a mindset,” Hurtado said.
Khaliavin, one of four Russians skating for another nation in these Olympics, says it’s tough to move up as an ice dancer in Russia.
“Sometimes you can’t find a partner. It’s very important to fight the right match for you: the skating skills, the height and maybe the ages,” he said. “If you are in juniors in Russia, it’s easier to find a partner. There are a lot of people skating. There’s not so many when you go to seniors. I was 25 when we got together. At that age, it’s hard to find a partner.”
What many of the couples don’t share is a language, and that often causes extra problems: communicating on the ice, strategizing and dealing with coaches. Some nations require athletes to speak the language.
“I came to Israel I only spoke Ukrainian and Russian,” Tankova says. “I learned English first. It took a year or more. I am still learning. And I am still learning Hebrew.”
Yura Min and Alexander Gamelin skate for South Korea. She is from California, he is from Long Island, though she has Korean roots and has represented the country since 2013. For them to team, Gamelin had to learn Korean, memorize the national anthem, and pass a citizenship interview.
“I’ve been studying since we got together,” he says, noting it took 1 1/2 years before he was ready for the citizenship test. “I understand it more than I speak it.”
Russian Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya skates pairs Down Under with Harley Windsor, though she at first thought she was headed to Vienna, not Sydney.
“My coach told me they had a partner for me in Australia and I thought it was Austria. I didn’t understand: Austria or Australia when I tell my mom,” she explains. “One month later, I go to Australia. My mom stay in Moscow. I didn’t speak English, except maybe ‘Hey, how are you?’”
It has worked out: They won the world junior crown in 2017.
They practice for three months in Australia, then three months in Moscow.
“We are going back soon; I can’t wait to see my mom in Moscow,” Alexandrovskaya says.
Keegan Messing, Canada’s second-ranked skater, was born in Alaska with Canadian roots.
Thanks to his grandmother, who got him interested in figure skating, he always wanted to represent Canada. When Messing found out Canada has never won Olympic men’s gold, he determined — at age 6 — that he would be the first.
He wound up 12th in South Korea, but he’s unperturbed.
“I skated seven years in the U.S., but I always wanted to skate for Canada,” says Messing, who has dual citizenship; his mother is from Edmonton. “After Sochi, the U.S. (federation) let me go so I was able to skate for Canada. It was the best decision I ever made for my sport.”
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