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Borscht Belts: Shpilband scoffs at collusion talk

Gold admires Lipnitskaia; Carroll hopes to lessen pupil's reactions
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Collusion between Russia and the United States? Russian-American coach Igor Shpilband explains why the idea is as impossible as it is absurd. -Getty Images

Talk of possible judging collusion at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, generated by an article in the French newspaper L'Equipe, seems to be dying a well-deserved death. But for a day or so, it lit up reporters' columns and was the hot topic in the media workrooms.

In the story, journalist Celine Nony attributed a "senior Russian coach" as saying the U.S. made a deal to help Russia win the team event and pairs competition in return for Russia's help in gaining ice dance gold for Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Russian skaters scored wins in five segments of the team event: Evgeni Plushenko won the men's free skate after placing second in the short, with Julia Lipnitskaia and a tandem of pairs -- Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov -- winning both of their respective segments. Team Russia is also strong in dance, with different couples placing third in each segment. Davis and White won the short dance and free dance segments by generous margins over Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Although Trankov can be mistake prone, he and Volosozhar are heavily favored to take the pairs gold, so much so that their main rivals, Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, developed a new short program, set to music from The Pink Panther, at the eleventh hour in an attempt to catch up to the Russians' program components scores. As for Davis and White, the U.S. world champions haven't been defeated since the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships.

Doesn't sound like any of the named parties in this deal need much help to win.

Igor Shpilband, who coached Davis and White, and Virtue and Moir, until April 2012, laughed when asked about the possible collusion.

"I don't know anything about where she got this information from," he said. "Not me."

Shpilband doesn't have a dog in the fight. When he and former coaching partner Marina Zoueva parted ways, his association with Davis and White, and Virtue and Moir, ended. Still, he couldn't conceal his contempt of the idea.

"I can't even see how it could really be arranged," he said. "The sport is not the way it used to be; there is a lot of unpredictability. Tessa missed her twizzles (in the team short dance). I mean, what are you going to do?"

"Even the top teams make mistakes," he continued. "The level of difficulty is going up, and it's the pressure of competition."

Shpilband added that the U.S. judge on the ice dance panel, Shawn Rettstatt, would not permit any type of cooperation.

"I've known him for many years, I have a lot of respect for him and I'm upset that someone would doubt his integrity," he said. "He is a very fair judge."

Judging in the team event was not flawless. Plushenko hit some jumps but pranced and posed his way through most of his free skate. Canadian silver medalist Kevin Reynolds landed three quads and delivered far more complex choreography, yet narrowly lost the segment. In this instance, sentiment for a 31-year-old 2006 Olympic champion, plus a "skating at home" advantage, likely came into play.

"The sport has changed," Shpilband said. "Is everything perfect? No. But I don't see how you can arrange a supposed deal like this."

The coach, who trains a large number of international teams in Novi, Mich., says he "loves" the new Olympic team event but has one large suggestion.

"It would be better after the individual events," he said. "It would have been a greater highlight, and all skaters would approach it better, and you would see more top skaters want to do it."

U.S., French, Lithuanian, Azerbaijan teams to Moscow

On Monday, Shpilband took four of his teams, including U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates; Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat of France; Lithuanians Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunus; and Julia Zlobina and Alexei Sitnikov of Azerbaijan, to Moscow for a few days of training.

On Sunday, he was in the practice rink working with Italian European champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, who were disappointed with the score of their 42nd Street short dance in the team event. They got Level 2's on their second Finnstep section and circular steps instead of the Level 4's they planned.

"We worked a little bit on that and figured out how to make it better in the individual event so they can get all of the levels," he said.

"There are some things they could have done better," Shpilband continued. "It's very precise; it's very hard to get consistent for any team, so we were trying to take a little bit different approach to hopefully get consistent for the individual event."

Shpilband was pleased with Péchalat and Bourzat's debut of their reworked short dance, now including "Roxy" from Chicago. However, the French finished more than a point behind one of their rivals for Olympic bronze, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dimitri Soloviev of Russia.

He doesn't think the narrow loss will affect their chances for a medal.

"I was very happy with how they skated; I heard a lot of positive comments from officials," Shpilband said. "They got the higher technical mark, and I was really pleased about that.

"Hopefully, they can execute things a little better (in the individual ice dance event). It was a close call to Russians. Nathalie and Fabian were behind them in the short dance by three points at the Grand Prix Final and still beat them with the free dance. This time it was just one point."

Shpilband also noted that it's a different judging panel in the individual ice dance event.

"We didn't have a French judge on the team panel," he said.

Some things never change.

Don't shake your fist at Frank Carroll

After her brilliant team free skate to Sleeping Beauty, which included a big triple Lutz-triple toe combination and solid double Axel-triple toe, Gracie Gold was off to Graz, Austria, where she will train with secondary coach Scott Brown.

Her primary coach, Frank Carroll, is staying in Sochi to work with world silver medalist Denis Ten.

Gold thinks doing the team free skate will have no impact on her performance in the individual event, which begins some 10 days later.

"Last year, [U.S.] nationals and Four Continents had less than a 10-day turnaround, I think," she said. "So, I've already had that experience and learned from it. Plus, at home I'll be training and get tired, and 10 days later I don't remember it." (Gold placed sixth at the 2013 Four Continents Championships in Osaka, Japan.)

Reporters asked her about Julia Lipnitskaia, who at age 15 notched 141.51 points for her Schindler's List free skate, which included triple Lutz-triple toe and double Axel-triple toe-double toe combinations as well as insanely flexible spins and spirals.

"Let's be real -- she's 15," Gold said. "She's completely unfazed. She has no spine but has iron in her bones."

Gold drew a comparison between Lipnitskaia and 15-year-old U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds, who will arrive in Sochi in a few days.

"Polina has that same kind of toughness," she said. "I'm more the [age] equivalent of Adelina Sotnikova." (Sotnikova, 17, is Russia's other lady in Sochi.)

Before Gold leaves for Graz, Carroll has a bone of contention to pick with her.

"I did a fist pump," she said. "So, I'm in trouble."

"I don't like that," Carroll said. "I'm a classic guy. I want an ending to be (mimics ladies bow), especially when you're skating to Tchaikovsky. [Late two-time U.S. champion] Christopher Bowman used to drive me crazy; he did everything but rip his shirt off, and he would have done that if I had let him."

Carroll also thinks that while wunderkind Lipnitskaia deservedly won the team free, the judges went a bit overboard with her program components scores, which include several 9's and 10's.

"There are things I like about that young lady's skating and things I don't like," he said. "I think she is absolutely wonderful at that age. I don't think she skates in between things (elements) like a total, mature skater.

"She was given some 10's for PCS, which is on par with [Patrick] Chan and everyone who has ever been. She's not there yet. I think she is excellent but not fabulous yet."

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