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Borscht belts: Zoueva hopes top teams continue

Chock, Bates not ready to carry U.S. ice dance mantle; Maia thinks fast
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Despite both of her teams having reached the pinnacle of their sport, Marina Zoueva believes there's still room for improvement. -Getty Images

We're heirs, but not apparent, say Chock, Bates

If Olympic champion Meryl Davis and Charlie White retire or take a break from competition -- and they have made no indication that they will -- Madison Chock and Evan Bates think it would be tough to fill their skates as U.S. champions. Still, they would sure love to try.

The U.S. silver medalists, together since July 2011, placed eighth in Sochi after a personal-best free dance to music from Les Misérables.

"Yeah, it seems like a pretty good job," Bates, 24, said. "I'm not sure it's fair, though, to put that kind of mantle on to one team. We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

"That would be a great honor, but definitely the U.S. field is deep, and we will have to fight for it," Chock, 21, said. "We have to work our way to where they have gotten and follow in their footsteps."

Chock and Bates would not be the only team vying for U.S. gold. Their Olympic teammates, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, were ninth in Sochi. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, fourth in the U.S. this season, won the 2014 Four Continents title.

"I like the attitude Maddie and Evan have," said their coach, Igor Shpilband, who trains his teams in Novi, Mich. "If Meryl and Charlie [retire], they're ready to fight for the U.S. title. It's not like they think it's going to be given to them. I think it's very healthy that they realize the depth of ice dancing in the U.S."

Bates competed at the 2010 Olympics with his former partner, Emily Samuelson. The duo placed 11th and looked to be going places, but for various reasons -- including Bates' serious Achilles tendon injury and its aftermath -- their partnership ended in the summer of 2011.

In Sochi, everyone expected Bates to take the lead, showing his partner the Olympic ropes. But he says that's not the way it worked out.

"Maddie was a rock," Bates said. "She showed absolutely no sign of nervousness. She was amazing. Thanks to my partner and my coach, it was a wonderful Olympic Games for us."

"Awww," Chock said.

Asked what his top U.S. team's strengths are, Shpilband replied, "They enjoy skating with each other, enjoy working, enjoy dancing. They are well connected to the music, and they like what they are doing."

The coach thinks they have what it takes to get to the top.

"They definitely have character, both of them," he said. "They've shown it a few times at competitions when it counts. They are both world junior champions (with former partners), which takes character to get. They skated great at nationals under pressure. They proved that they can do it. I hope they keep this fighting character they have for the future."

By coincidence, the Closing Ceremony falls on Bates' birthday: He turns 25 on Feb. 23.

"So it's going to be one giant party for me," he said.

End of an era? Zoueva hopes not

Reporters love to talk to Marina Zoueva, and Marina Zoueva loves to talk ice dance. After the free dance results were in, she held a lengthy session in the mixed zone.

"Take it easy on her, she's a good coach," Scott Moir said as he walked out of the mixed zone and into the athletes' area.

On the top of the agenda: Does Sochi mark a changing of the guard in ice dance?

Zoueva hopes not. If she had her druthers, Davis (27) and White (26), and Tessa Virtue (25) and Moir (26) will continue for another cycle.

"They are still young enough," she said. "Absolutely room for improvement -- like with all of us. It will be up to them."

Being Moscow-born, would she ever consider coaching Russian skaters?

"I would like to do something for Russia," she said. "Well, I did already, with two times Olympic [pairs] champions [Katia] Gordeeva and [Sergei] Grinkov. That's two gold medals for Russia already. And one gold medal for Canada. One gold medal now for the United States."

How does she handle dealing with the disappointment of the skaters who have lost?

"Sport is up and down," Zoueva said. "Tessa and Scott are Olympic champions, two-time world champions. Meryl and Charlie once Olympic, three-times world champions. This is sport. They [each] have one [Olympic] silver medal, so it's kind of really balanced. And I always tell them, ice dance is a sport."

Zoueva made a slip of the tongue here: Both teams have two world titles. Virtue and Moir won in 2010 and 2012, Davis and White in 2011 and 2013. Is this a hint about which of the teams plans to compete at the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan?

And, finally, the big question: How do her two teams get along?

"It's like Tessa and Scott's program, [Glazunov's] Seasons," Zoueva said. "Relationships have seasons, right, of course. Even lovers have seasons. Of course, the kids have seasons. Sometimes very friendly, sometimes...

"It's very normal, very natural."

Coomes and Buckland, Shibutanis draw inspiration from MJ

Sometimes, you have to improvise.

Or, as Alex Shibutani intoned in the mixed zone after his and sister Maia's free dance, "The show must go on."

In the middle of a great outing of the sibling's Michael Jackson free dance, Maia's black skirt somehow got caught on Alex's bedazzled black jacket. They were stuck together. Thinking quickly, Maia improvised a few moves, got unstuck, and the program went on.  

"It's unfortunate," Maia, 19, said. "It's a little fluky, but we worked through it."

The team sustained a one-point deduction, and the element dropped to a Level 2, but they still placed 10th in the free dance and ninth overall.

"Maia was really quick in her thinking, and she was able to probably save a bunch of points, and probably a placement," Alex, 22, said.

The minor snafu didn't dim the Shibutanis' Olympic experience, or the satisfaction they took in working with Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, two of Michael Jackson's choreographers, on their free dance.

"They've been very involved in the whole process: choreography, music and costume," Maia said.

"Stacy sent us an email about how proud she was of us," Alex said. "Both Stacy and Travis had very close relationships with Michael. They loved him very much, and they worked very closely with him in a professional level. They both told us, if he were here, he would be so proud of us."

"We were honored we were able to stand there together and really pay tribute to an amazing artist, an amazing dancer, and do it together as siblings," he continued.

The Shibutanis didn't have the only Michael Jackson free dance of the night. British European bronze medalists Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland also skated to music from the King of Pop, although they chose different hits.

The duo, which trains in New Jersey under two-time Olympic ice dance gold medalist Evgeni Platov, had the crowd clapping along with them to "Billie Jean" and their closing rotational lift.

"It's Russia, and I thought, 'Let's do something like Swan Lake -- I want some drama,'" Platov said. "The kids said, 'No, let's be different.'"

Like the Shibutanis, Coomes and Buckland turned to an expert: Gareth Woodward and Jasmine Eccles, who performed in Thriller Live in London's West End.

Coomes and Buckland count the Shibutanis among their good friends and say they weren't disappointed to hear there was another Jackson free dance in the works.

"It shows [Jackson's] versatility, that two teams took such different approaches and chose completely different songs," Coomes said. "When we watch their free dance for the first time, we loved picking out those iconic moves -- it was, 'Yeah, we know that.'"

The Brits placed 10th, one spot behind the Shibutanis. Buckland has a suggestion for the upcoming world championships.

"I suggested to Alex he wear sparkly boot covers," he said. "I don't know if he will. I might have to."

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