When Nancy Bates told her nine-year-old son, Evan, that she wanted him to learn ice dancing, his first reaction was yuck: “I don’t want to hold hands with a girl,” Nancy recalls him protesting. But she insisted he give it a try. After all, the lessons–from two top Russian skaters–were free. Nancy’s sister Susan, a lawyer, had helped the Russians get the green cards they needed to work for the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club (AAFSC). In exchange, they’d agreed to teach her nephew.
Eleven years later, Evan Bates and his longtime skating partner, Emily Samuelson, are ranked among the very best ice dancing pairs in the country. They’ll compete this month at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Washington. The top three couples in the nationals usually go on to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics, and Samuelson and Bates have a good shot, says Detroit Free Press sportswriter Jo-Ann Barnas, who has covered the Olympics for years. They won the silver medal at last year’s nationals, and this year, Barnas says, “I think they could get the bronze.”
Now nineteen and twenty, respectively, Samuelson and Bates are both enrolled part-time at the U-M. But right now, they’re spending much of their time training for the nationals–and, if they do well there, for February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Says Bates, “Thinking about the Olympics gives me butterflies that won’t go away.”
Ann Arbor has long been a good skating town; Dr. Richard Porter formed the first synchronized skating team here in 1954. But for years the city had only one public indoor rink, Veterans Ice Arena, and it was hard for competitive skaters to get enough ice time at Vets, which is closed in the summer. Many trained elsewhere, often at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills.
That changed in 1995, when the Ann Arbor Ice Cube opened. With access to its three year-round rinks, the AAFSC “went from eighteen hours [of practice time] to sixty hours a week,” says longtime board member Ann Dougherty. Membership tripled, and enrollment in skating classes soared.
But it was ice dancing that really put the AAFSC on the skating world map. In 1998, the club hired Russian ice dancers Yuri Chesnichenko and Yaroslava Nechaeva as coaches. Under them, the club has turned out some of the country’s top competitors in the esoteric sport, which blends elements of skating and ballroom dance.
“Yuri and Yasa brought a new elitism to the rink,” says Diane Wilson, Cube manager and former AAFSC president. Along with Samuelson and Bates, four other pairs trained by Chesnichenko and Nechaeva at the Cube also are headed to the nationals this month. The coaches’ reputation has grown to the point that they are now attracting ice dance hopefuls from Texas, California, even Ukraine.
Members of the last generation trained in the mighty Soviet Union sports machine, Chesnichenko and Nechaeva are described by reporter Barnas as among the “hardest-working coaches” she’s ever seen. They and their students have created an excitement at the Cube that AAFSC old-timers never experienced.
Like all performers of the first rank, Samuelson and Bates make it look easy. A video on YouTube taken at a competition earlier this year shows them skating to Kristin Chenoweth’s sprightly version of “Let Yourself Go,” from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Follow the Fleet. Bates looks almost doll-like in a sailor suit and hat, while Samuelson wears a slinky red frock and gloves. They dance with the energy the music demands, side by side, spinning, twirling, Bates scooping her in his arms. They’re not blase. They look like they’re enjoying themselves.
Bates, born and raised in Ann Arbor, and Samuelson, who grew up in Novi, appear to have enjoyed the best of both worlds: normal family lives in stable, well-off households, and the excitement of traveling around the world, competing, and often winning, sometimes in front of TV cameras.
They just made the cover of Skating magazine, and awestruck young girls ask them for autographs at competitions. But on the U-M campus, they’re just two more good-looking but anonymous students. The mass media generally ignore ice dancing, except, of course, during the Olympics.
And hard work, not the glamour of swirling in beautiful costumes before admiring audiences, dominates their life. Four or five hours of daily practice on the ice–after school when they were younger, and between classes now that they are older–is the norm. There are also hours spent taking dance lessons–from waltzes to hip-hop and everything in between.
Ice dancers don’t do the dramatic throws seen in figure skating. But performing entire routines in close proximity imposes its own risks. “In ice dance, if you relax a second, you’re going to make a mistake or trip your partner,” says Bates. Once, in a competition in Germany, Samuelson fell, and Bates skated over her hand. She was back on the ice in three weeks, but the stitches in her hand are still visible.
Samuelson says she stopped worrying years ago about Bates dropping her. But they rehearse new lifts for hours off ice. When they finally leave the dance floor for the rink, she wears a helmet until they’ve got it down–and coach Chesnichenko hovers protectively nearby.
The daughter of a financial analyst and an ad agency marketer, now both retired, Samuelson started taking lessons at age five, discovered her talent quickly, and soon was being driven from her home in Novi to the Cube for lessons–a fact that her two younger sisters resented, she confesses.
The son of cardiologist Eric Bates and artist Nancy, Evan was an all-round athlete (soccer, skiing, hockey, solo skating) when his mom forced those ice dancing lessons on him. “But the teasing I received was minimal,” he says. And it turned out to be his best sport. “I’m very competitive, and I like success,” he says. “In ice dance, I got into the junior nationals my first year.”
Samuelson and Bates met in an ice dancing class a decade ago. When Emily lost her partner in May 2000, their freestyle skating coach suggested she try out together with Evan. Nechaeva says she quickly saw their potential. “Emily is very elegant,” she says, with a ballet dancer’s gracefulness. “Evan is very coordinated, very athletic.” Their heights–he’s 6 foot 2, she’s 5 foot 3–and physical appearance complemented one other, she adds. “Everything fell in place.”
They went through a shy period in early adolescence, when, self-conscious about their changing bodies, they didn’t talk after lessons. Samuelson now describes their relationship as platonic but very tight. Both date occasionally but say that it’s very difficult to find time for their friends, much less romantic partners.
For various reasons, ice dancers change partners fairly frequently, but “I’ve skated with Emily every day as long as I can remember,” says Bates. “My relationship with her is special and unique. She’s 100 percent dedicated. I feel lucky.”
After the skating duo themselves–and the parents who have supported them–the people most invested in their success are Nechaeva and Chesnichenko. After almost ten years of training, the coaches and athletes enjoy a somewhat complicated but close relationship. “Our families…kind of trusted Yasa and Yuri to, like, raise us five hours, six hours a day,” says Bates. “The result has been more than a payoff.”
In interviews, Nechaeva and Chesnichenko convey the gravity of people who view their careers as a mission. Statuesque with Slavic cheekbones and long blond braids, Nechaeva explains that they met when they were both very young. They had a teenage romance but since then have been just close friends. Both were tapped to train as elite athletes in the Communist system, all expenses paid. But then the Soviet Union collapsed when they were in their teens, ejecting them into a world where coaches had to clean rinks themselves because the government no longer paid anyone else to do it.
They skated professionally in a troupe organized by Olympic gold medalists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, then turned to teaching. Hearing the AAFSC was hiring, Nechaeva made a call, and the two flew here for an interview that took place at Real Seafood Company.
One interviewer, skating judge Margaret Faulkner, had seen the pair skate in competitions and was already sold. Ann Dougherty recalls that she had doubts, since Eastern Bloc skaters had a reputation of being spoiled. But she liked them immediately. “My gut instinct told me they’d fit in,” recalls Dougherty. The club sponsored the duo to work in the United States; they have since become American citizens. Each is unmarried and owns a home near the Cube; in an interview, one of the few times Nechaeva smiles is when she mentions her three dogs.
In addition to ice dancing, Nechaeva and Chesnichenko also teach basic skating and ballet for skaters at the Cube. But whether they are teaching six-year-olds to stand up on skates or Olympic hopefuls to execute intricate lifts and spins, they are dead serious. To study with them, “you have to work hard,” says Chesnichenko. “You can’t be rude, unpleasant…No prima donnas.”
Chesnichenko, who’s very tall, looks much younger than his thirty-six years. He says that teaching skaters of all abilities helps keep him from going overboard with anxiety when working with stars like Samuelson and Bates. “I can have just as much fun with a six-year-old girl,” he says. “It helps keep a perspective on things.”
Still, the coaches know that if Samuelson and Bates make it to the Olympics, their own fortunes will rise as well. Asked if she misses performing, Nechaeva replies, “My life continues through my skaters. I know I’m taking part in their success. What they know is what I taught them.”
The AAFSC isn’t Michigan’s only skating powerhouse. The Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton and the Detroit Skating Club also are hot spots.
Former Olympian Elizabeth Punsalan coaches at the Detroit club. Evan Bates’s U-M roommate, Charlie White, trains in Canton. White and his partner, Meryl Davis, also a U-M student, won the gold at last year’s nationals and will compete again this month.
“You would think that this Bermuda Triangle of figure skating clubs would be super competitive, but the coaches are friends,” says the Free Press’s Barnas.
Which doesn’t mean awkward situations don’t arise. Recently, brother-and-sister ice dancers Madison and Keiffer Hubbell unexpectedly quit Ann Arbor for Detroit. Chesnichenko had given a lesson to Keiffer in the morning; a few hours later, on the way to the airport, he received a call from Nechaeva: the Hubbells had just announced they were leaving.
It’s not uncommon for skaters to switch coaches, and Detroit has lately been picking up ice dancing pairs from other clubs. But the Hubbells had been with Nechaeva and Chesnichenko even longer than Samuelson and Bates. Everyone who knew them well, including Bates–who calls Keiffer Hubbell his best friend–was shocked.
Such episodes hint at the hidden tensions in a sport that achieves moments of seamless beauty by relentlessly consuming competitors’ time, egos, and money. The cost of training, costumes, travel, and equipment for competitive skaters averages between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.
Like other elite skaters, Samuelson and Bates receive training subsidies from the United States Figure Skating Association. But it’s a sign of how invisible ice dancing is that they have not been able to attract sponsors, though “we’d love them,” says Samuelson.
Even if they make the Olympic team and do well there, they won’t get rich. Only a handful of skating stars, like the iconic Michelle Kwan, get big endorsement deals. “Whatever I might accomplish in figure skating,” says Bates, “isn’t going to pay the bills.”
Both Bates and Samuelson expect to have careers outside of skating, though they’re not sure yet what those might be. “Evan’s not going to be skating forever,” says Nancy Bates.
But that doesn’t diminish their determination to make the most of their opportunity. They’ve been working toward this Olympics for half their lives. Bates, who dragged his skates when his mom suggested ice dancing, now says, “I can only say I’m very grateful for my mom for getting me involved.”
That comment might give his mother as much pleasure as whatever future medals he might win. And Vancouver isn’t necessarily the end of the road. If they don’t make the Olympics this year, there’s always 2014 in Sochi, Russia.