Ice Network

Cup of 'Cro: Pogrebinsky, Benoit blog from Zagreb

U.S. ice dancers share experiences from Croatia's Junior Grand Prix event
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Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit hope to put forward a strong showing at the Junior Grand Prix event in Croatia. -Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit

U.S. ice dancers Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit competed in their second Junior Grand Prix (JGP) event of the season in Zagreb, Croatia. The team kept a blog for icenetwork.

Saturday, Oct. 11

"Dobra večer" from Zagreb on our last full day here. We cannot believe that the final day of the Croatia Cup, and our JGP season, has already arrived. At the risk of sounding cliché, the time has flown by.

The free dance was competed at lunchtime, and we felt the anticipation brewing all morning with the prospect of skating our program. To clarify, we were not scared to compete, but rather we were excited to have the ice to ourselves one last time and to have the opportunity to tell our story of Swan Lake.

Our free dance story is similar to a Starbuck's iced white chocolate mocha. Initially, the beverage looks so attractive, and the taste is intoxicating. However, by the time you realize that within this light, delicious drink lurk 630 calories and 27 grams of fat, it's too late, and you end up quaffing the whole thing.

In our story, Alex is the attractive (yet evil) iced white chocolate mocha, and Ellie is the unassuming patron, merely looking for a tasty refreshment. Ultimately, she falls under the spell of the beverage and willingly gorges herself on all of its nastiness! (Yes, we did just correlate skating to coffee, while also bringing in a white-and-black-colored beverage to match our Swan Lake costumes. The analogy may be a little unorthodox, but please go along with us, as we are trying to tie up the loose ends of our coffee theme!)

Our free dance went very well. We felt connected to each other with our interpretation, we covered the ice well enough that Ellie nearly hit the boards of the undersized rink during our diagonal step sequence, and we cleaned up a lift that had lost levels in Japan. We ended the event with a new personal best for our free dance, and we didn't even offer a gift of an old boot for the domaći!

Following the event, Ellie, Alex and a group of 13 ice dancers toured Old Zagreb together. In addition to visiting the historic sites and enjoying the most awesome ice cream, we watched several Croatian wedding parties celebrate by driving through town, wildly beeping their horns and waving flags out of their car windows. The vision was simultaneously colorful and hilarious, yet not that far removed from the sentiment of weddings back home.

We returned to Dom sportova in time to cheer on Karen Chen in the ladies free skate. She, along with Nathan Chen in the men's event and Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons in dance, won silver in Zagreb. The rest of Team USA all finished in the top 10 of their respective events! It was a successful week, and we owe a debt of gratitude to team leader Dana Graham for facilitating all the behind-the-scenes details so that we could concentrate on our skating.

Thank you to icenetwork for allowing us to share our experiences and photographs online; we hope that the readers have enjoyed getting to know us a little bit and have found our adventures interesting.

The members of the team split up Sunday to return to their respective training centers. We'll see some of our teammates at Midwestern sectionals next month and others at nationals in January. And when we do meet up again, it will be with the warm memory that, together, we shared and savored the Cup of 'Cro -- as friends, as skaters and as teammates.

Friday, Oct. 10

Today was Short Dance day, and that meant lots of Sambas as the Silver Samba is the required pattern dance within the short dance. The Samba is originally from Brazil, the largest coffee producer in the world, although the Silver Samba has a more generalized Latin feel to it.

Following our morning warm-up, the event started at 11:30 a.m. As has been the norm this season, the short dance event was filled with guys wearing different variations of black, sexy shirts and pants and girls wearing pink, purple or orange dresses adorned with fringe or ruffles. That being said, the 15 teams presented as many different interpretations of Samba as there are flavors of Franck's coffee.

We had a wonderful time skating our short dance, which now features a revamped step sequence and some transitional changes which we added after our JGP debut last month. We communicated well with one another, the dance was energetic and the skating was solid -- except for about two seconds of it.

Unfortunately, Alex hit a toepick on the second revolution of his twizzle and went down, popping up in time to step into the next two twizzles in sync with Ellie. While the error was brief, it was costly, penalizing us 7.6 points in technical score alone. While Alex could give exact details of the slight weight shift which caused the pivot point of the blade to move forward just past the rocker, he's not going to. For non-skating readers, there is figure skating folklore about "snow snakes" that reach up from the ice to take a skater down.

Since we are in Croatia, we thought that rather than curse the snow snakes today, we would attribute the unfortunate event to the domaci that must be watching over Dom Sportova. The friendly, elf-like creatures from Croatian legend live in each house or building, and if they get annoyed, they can play tricks on the inhabitants. (As a precaution, we are contemplating offering the domaci its favorite gift of an old boot or some salted bread prior to tomorrow's free dance!)

After the draw, we toured Zagreb's Old Town, which is known as Upper Town. It is fascinating how just a few steps from the hubbub and the excitement of the JGP event, the city can unfold its history and relaxing charm to visitors. In addition to the magnificent architecture, some of the highlights of our outing included the Zagreb Cathedral with its trompe l'oeil spire tarp, the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art (yes, that is the correct title), and our personal favorite, the Museum of Broken Relationships. Both of us welcomed the time away from the competition to re-ground ourselves in preparation for tomorrow's free dance event!

PS - Special congratulations to Team USA pairs team Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson for securing their place at the JGP Final today, and also to the Parsons for a new season's-best short dance performance. In addition, Nathan Chen won silver, and Daniel Kulenkamp, Jessica Lee and Robert Hennings, and Olivia Allan and Austin Hale each achieved a top-ten finish!

Thursday, Oct. 9

Dobra večer from Zagreb!

One of the objectives for our blog is to expose the icenetwork readers to a part of our sport that they may not otherwise have access to. Obviously, all the competitors here train diligently throughout the year, and have made many sacrifices just to reach this level. That being said, the experience at the JGP events includes so much more than what occurs on the ice. With that in mind, day three of our trip was a multi-cultural explosion for our senses ... with a little bit of skating added in! 

The logistics of the JGP Series require that the host federation -- in this case, the Croatian Skating Federation -- provides the housing, food and transportation for the athletes. We are staying in a nice hotel, and the athlete meals are served buffet-style in one of its banquet rooms. While this setup encourages mingling with skaters from other countries, and we don't have to leave the building to eat, by the third day of seeing the same catered fare in the chafing dishes, we were feeling a little more adventurous. Additionally, we are surrounded by an abundance of inexpensive and ethnic, outdoor eating opportunities (not to mention the gorgeous weather!), the decision to go on a dining safari was an easy one.

We went with a group of ice dancers for a post-practice shwarma snack, and the food did not disappoint. We cannot get over how inexpensive the restaurants and cafés are here; you can literally enjoy a delicious, satisfying meal, along with a drink, for about $6. Whether it was due to the food, the company, the weather or just that we needed a stress-reliever at his point in the week, we all sang and danced to the Taylor Swift video being played on the megascreen on the exterior of the Dom sportova. Who knew that a leggy, blonde Nashvillean could inspire a spontaneous, multi-national flash mob seven time zones away in Zagreb? (Incidentally, if Taylor is reading this blog and is looking for material for her next hit ballad, Alex is currently single!)

For dinner, a group of U.S., French and Israeli skaters enjoyed pizza al fresco. The meal was a mini-celebration, since Netta Schreiber, Adrien Tesson and Daniel Samohin had competed their short programs earlier in the day, and Alex had his 19th birthday today. Many thanks to Ellie for helping Alex feel as if he was surrounded by family on his special day!

Regarding our promise yesterday to "ajmo na kavu," we feel that we followed the spirit of the saying, even though we didn't necessarily drink any coffee today. The Croatian coffee subculture is not so much about the coffee as it is about the social activity. When someone here says, "Let's go for coffee," it could mean anything from "Let's talk" to "Let's break up" to "Let's make a business decision." Today, we both interpreted the phrase to mean, "Let's explore, let's meet new people, and let's just relax and enjoy the opportunity that we've been given." Mission accomplished!

P.S. - Congratulations to our Team USA skaters that competed today. All three pairs teams (Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson, Jessica Lee and Robert Hennings, Olivia Allan and Austin Hale) met the short program minimum technical element score (TES) requirement for the world junior championships. Daniel Kulenkamp also had a strong JGP debut. Going into the free skate, Karen Chen is in first with a four-point lead, Nathan Chen is in second, and Chelsea and Brian are in third.

Wednesday, Oct. 8

"Dobra večer!" from Zagreb on day two of our adventure. 

Today was a Croatian national holiday -- Dan neovisnosti -- which is similar to the Fourth of July in terms of national significance. The holiday has been celebrated since 2001, and the city was filled with citizens relaxing, strolling, shopping and sipping coffee in the outdoor cafés dotting the sidewalks. Our day was nothing like Dan neovisnosti, as it was filled with multiple competition-dictated activities, and we spent much of our waking hours shuttling back and forth between venues.

After a full night of sleep, we both felt well rested and ready to attack the day. Following breakfast at the hotel (which included the most awesome bread, but much to Alex's chagrin, not a pat of butter to be found), we had practice at the secondary ice rink. The Zagreb Fair ice rink was about 15 minutes from our hotel, and, similar to our rink at JGP Japan last month, it had been used as a fair pavilion. The surface was close to an Olympic size (100 x 200), and the ceiling insisted on misting us during our practice. (OK, misting is perhaps too big an understatement; the ceiling was actually dripping on us -- big, sloppy drops that kept finding Ellie's face, no matter where she was on the ice!) Our first skate since leaving Michigan on Monday went well, and other than the additional "epidermal hydration" that Ellie enjoyed, the morning went as expected.

Back at the hotel, we had lunch with some of our fellow competitors. This JGP is unique in that many of the competitors from other countries are actually former U.S. skaters. So, halfway around the world, there is an immediate common ground with several skaters who hail from the Pacific Coast, Midwestern or Eastern sections, although they represent foreign federations.

The official draw followed lunch. Unlike at our last JGP, where Ellie consistently drew first group skating order, we designated Alex to be our Sky Masterson for the draw. He approached the referee and with the icy, cool stare of a seasoned gambler, reached for the number, and ... third! Yep, first skating group again; we somehow seem to be magnetically attracted to this group. We hope that the spectators will have arrived and be in their seats by the time we skate.

Our second practice of the day was on the competition surface. Dom sportova is housed across the square from our hotel, and to get there, we walk past the bear-guarded outdoor café and a monolithic statue of what appears to be a naked woman squatting in the fountain. We have yet to get the entire story on this statue, but watching Ellie try to get a picture of it from its more "flattering" front side was a hilarious scene in itself.

Whereas the Fair ice rink was close in size to an Olympic sheet of ice, the Dom sportova arena is an oddly dimensioned 190 x 92. Since it is shorter but wider than an NHL surface, it could provide for some interesting samba pattern dance configurations during the short dance.

The arena is very cool looking. It is a beautiful structure with a megascreen at the end of the ice. In addition to holding sporting events in the facility (the 2008 European Championships were here), the arena hosts many concerts. Whitesnake played here in 2013 (Alex didn't realize that they were even still performing), and over the venue's lifetime, it has hosted everyone from Enrique Iglesias to 50 Cent to Queen and even the Rolling Stones.

As we walked past the Bear's café on our way home, fatigued from the excitement of the practices and the draw, we enviously watched young Croatian couples and small groups sharing their holiday with one another, and sipping what looked like delicious hot and cold coffee treats. Tomorrow is a lighter day for us, so along with a little exploration of old Zagreb, "Ajmo na kavu!" (Let's go for coffee!)

Tuesday, Oct. 7

"Dobra večer" from Zagreb. This is Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit sharing our experiences from the JGP Croatia Cup.

We blogged for from JGP Japan last month, and learned a few tips from an editorial perspective. First of all, since we blog as a team and don't want to confuse our readers, when we write we refer to ourselves as "we," "Ellie" or "Alex." 

While we realize that this decision will have many of you reaching for your red pencils to correct our grammatical mistakes in switching between first and third person, please "bear" with us. This system really does help the reader to understand who is doing what in our blog, and it makes it more credible to our respective English teachers when we each claim to be published online!

For this event, we struggled deciding on a title and unifying theme for our blog. We have spent the last several weeks researching Croatia and Zagreb (in addition to preparing on the ice), and while Croatia has a rich history, neither of us saw an immediate connection to our skating.

OK, we know that any of you dance fans out there will immediately reference Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's iconic "Sarajevo" program that was put together by our coach, Igor Shpilband, for the 2001-02 competitive season. Yes, you are correct -- they did create and portray a story of upheaval and struggle magnificently, and it related exquisitely to their amazing skating talents. But, for the sake of our own self-esteem, we are not going to touch that comparison with a 10-foot pole!

And so, we turned to the name of the competition for inspiration and some free association -- Croatia Cup ... Cup of Croatia ... Cup of "Cro" ... Cup of Joe ... Aha! Our research turned up some interesting information. Croatia is known for its coffee subculture: the average Croatian consumes 11 pounds of coffee per year, compared to nine pounds for Americans. But more importantly, Croatians have turned the habit of gulping down a cup of liquid energy into a daily, time-consuming yet meaningful, satisfying activity that serves the purpose of connecting with one another. And in a sense, that is what ice dance does for us, on a daily basis.

So, as we finally arrive at our high-rise hotel in Zagreb after a seven-hour flight to Paris, followed by a three-hour layover and a 90-minute flight to Zagreb, we are filled with a little apprehension and a lot of curiosity and excitement about what this week holds for us.

Figuratively speaking, will we burn our tongues by being impatient? Will we find the experience slightly bitter, and wish that we had added a little more sugar? Or, will we simply inhale deeply, let the aroma of a fresh grind tease our senses and then confidently lift the cup to our lips and savor the experience? Check back to find out!

P.S. - As a side note, watching Tanith and Ben perform "Sarajevo" on TV at the 2002 U.S. Championships was the single event that started brewing Alex's interest in skating!