Marcus Hayes: Torch passed as Canadians take ice-dancing gold

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir react after their original dance.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir react after their original dance.
Posted: February 23, 2010

VANCOUVER - The symbolism could not have been plainer.

Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva climbed the steep steps from ice level to the exit, beaming.

They coached the top two couples after the original dance portion of the Olympic ice-dance competition Sunday night. They were poised to at least match the silver medal won by skaters they coached at Turin in 2006.

Minutes later, legendary coaches Gennadi Karponosov and Natalia Linichuk descended those same stairs at the Pacific Coliseum, smiling regretfully. Their top skaters, favored entering the games, stood far behind, in third and fourth place.

All of the coaches knew, even before last night, the ice-dancing guard had changed.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir became the toast of Canada last night with a third thrilling performance in 4 nights. With fresh Olympic exuberance, Virtue and Moir owned a podium for Canada. They atoned for failing, whining teammates on speedskates, skis and luges, Canadians sabotaged by their country's withering "Own the Podium" directive.

To a thrilling chant, "Ca-Na-Da!" they owned the country.

Virtue and Moir scored 221.57 points, capped by last night's 110.42 points in the free dance, more than five points better than their previous best, secured Canada's first gold medal in ice dancing - and the first gold for Shpilband.

He delighted in the coaches' box when the skaters melted out of their synchronized twizzle.

He tenderly embraced Zoueva when the dancers finished their routine, kneeling on the ice, flowers and flags raining from the standing audience. He lovingly held Virtue when the skaters met their coaches at the kiss-and-cry seats.

He knew gold was theirs, and his. His joy had even deeper measure.

He also coaches American silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who finished 5.83 points behind the Canadians.

Afterward, with the Americans draped in the Stars and Stripes, the Canadians in their red Maple Leaf banner, Shpilband and Zoueva posed in a six-winner group hug on the ice.

Yes, Shpilband had a good night, a rarity among Russians last night.

"It is a competition," Linichuk said. "One team has to win. Another, not."

Russian favorites Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, first after Friday's compulsory dance but third after two programs, finished with bronze, 13.93 points off the gold they sought. It likely is their last competition, since Shabalin's bad left knee is nearly finished.

Last night also probably spells the competitive end for Tanith Belbin, 25, and Ben Agosto, 28. She has received as much attention for her suggestive cover shots and her striking looks as for the silver she and Agosto won in Turin.

They faltered in their strength last night, logging only 99.74 points, about a dozen shy of their goal, which left them 18.50 points out of first and 3.94 points off the podium.

They could not have been more gracious.

"We're so, so incredibly happy for Igor," Belbin said. "We've talked a lot about Natalia and Gennadi, and we wouldn't be here today without them. But this started a long time ago, with Igor."

Lately, they received considerable attention for splitting with Shpilband, who paired them in 1998.

He coached them for a decade, but after a disappointing fourth at the world championships in 2008, they left suburban Detroit for suburban Philadelphia. They left Davis and White at Spilband's Canton, Mich., rink for Aston, Pa., where Linichuk and Karponosov, 1980 gold medalists themselves, had set up shop.

Without them, Davis and White thrived.

"We're so pleased with our former training mates," said Belbin, who also lost to them at U.S. Championships.

By then, Domnina, 25, and Shabalin, 28, had moved from Russia to Aston.

Both couples moved to improve their chance at gold here. Both say they now are better skaters.

Just not as good as the kids.

Virtue and Moir skated Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the emotional on-ice connection that recalls Brits Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who won at Sarajevo in 1984.

The power of Davis and White forcefully and cleanly carried them through their "Phantom of the Opera" choreography. As he held her on their straight-line lift, Shpliband erupted into applause.

The top two couples might repeat this drama for years to come - though it is drama without malice.

Davis, 23, and White, 22, get along famously with Virtue, 20, and Moir, 21. They travel together. They share coffee breaks when their daily schedules allow it. They commiserate.

Davis and White used to do the same with Belbin and Agosto, who, effectively, were their older siblings.

Shpilband, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1990 and teamed up with Zoueva in 2001, developed the dancers at the Arctic Figure Skating club, the strongest of a trio of skating factories in the Detroit metro area. Since he rode former U.S. champs Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow to prominence in the 1990s, Shpilband, now a U.S. citizen, has been seen as a strong coach of elite talent.

Linichuk and Karponosov, however, were a notch above.

They guided Russian stars Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov to Olympic gold in 1994 and 1998. Also in 1998 they claimed Olympic silver medalists Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov, also of Russia.

Most recently, they coached Bulgarian couple Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski to consecutive world championships. Domnina and Shabalin, ninth in Turin in 2006, won their first world championship last year, just ahead of Belbin and Agosto, who outpaced Virtue and Moir, with Davis and White fourth.

But Davis and White beat Belbin and Agosto in the U.S. Championships.

The 4-day, three-skate competition was anybody's for the taking.

Shpilband's kids took it. *

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com.

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