Ice Network

Estonia stories: Ice dancers blog from junior worlds

Pogrebinsky, Benoit use fairy tale theme to relay adventures from Tallinn
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U.S. ice dancers Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit make their way to Tallinn with their coach, Igor Shpilband. -courtesy of Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit are making their debut at the world junior championships this week in Tallinn, Estonia. They are keeping a blog for icenetwork.

March 7, 2015

Hüvasti (farewell) from Tallinn!

Today was the last day of competition and our final blog entry for the season. In preparing for this blog back home, we had some initial ideas about how we would wrap up the final entry here. But mirroring the contrasts of the city and the double-sided nature of so many fairy tales, it is only fitting that we reflect the true duality of the day.

Let's first talk about Tallinn's duality. It is a city that simultaneously protects its 800-year-old architecture, while at the same time the horizon is dotted with tower cranes erecting new glass skyscrapers. Mid-rise, monolithic, concrete apartment complexes seem to sprout out of the ground near every major bus stop. Since Alex is always looking out for interesting cars, he noticed that the prevalent cars are the cars that are considered luxury vehicles in the U.S. (Audi, Mercedes, BMW) and lesser known European imports (Peugeot, Skoda). However, there are no parking lots, parking garages, or street parking spots to be found; cars are left on the sidewalk outside of the storefronts. It's a city that has a Jetson-looking, Soviet-era TV tower made of concrete, but also has protective tunnels under the city, built by the Swedes in the 17th century. And in the boldest sense of the word duality, Tallinn actually has a KGB Mmuseum housed in the Hotel Viru. From the hotel's opening in 1972 until 1991, the KGB operated a radio transmission department from atop the hotel. It also allowed for easy surveillance of foreign guests.

So, how does duality fit into the last day of competition? There were some major changes in the free dance event. The teams that were second and fifth in the short dance flip-flopped in the free dance. There were teams that started the event in one warm-up group and ended in another. Regarding the Team USA dancers, it was a good day. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, portraying a tale of obsessive love between the phantom and his operatic ingénue, skated well and matched their third-place finish in the short dance. They earned Level 4 on their lifts and spin, Level 3 on their twizzles and circular steps and Level 2 on the diagonal steps. When the accounting was added in due to the already mentioned upheavals, Quinn and Lorraine claimed the silver medal for Team USA! Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, telling the tale of doomed love between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, also skated well, again earning Level 4 on their lifts and spin, Level 3 on the twizzles and one step sequence, and level 2 on the other step sequence. They were fifth in the free dance and fourth overall!

We skated our final Swan Lake performance of the season, showing the transformation of purity into evil, as Ellie followed Alex into the depths of wickedness. We earned an International Skating Union personal best in our free dance, earning Level 4 on the lifts and spin, and Level 3 on both step sequences. We had no negative Grades of Execuation (GOEs), mostly +1 and +2, and even several +3 GOEs. However, just like the clock strike at midnight made Cinderella's coach disappear, our twizzle element went "poof" during our performance and we got no credit for it. Interestingly, other than the top six finishers, we earned more GOE credit gathered from six, rather than seven, elements. Again, skating is a sport where differences in success and failure are measured by the width of a blade, and that duality of fear and exhilaration is what keeps us all skating.

The men finished out competition and we all came out to support Nathan, Kevin and Andrew. As mentioned before, the men's event is very deep, but most of the competitors showed signs of fatigue today, as evidenced by a large number of negative GOEs awarded. The Team USA skaters impressed: Nathan Chen with his two quadruple toes, Andrew Torgashev with his high PCS (third highest in the event), and Kevin Shum with his massive, point-earning 3F+3T (10.10 points) to open his program. Congratulations to each of them!

Many of the American, Canadian and British skaters closed the book on junior worlds by visiting a Tallinn karaoke bar tonight. Michael Parsons and Mackenzie Bent started the entertainment with an altogether too-sweet version of "Summer Loving." We took turns singing the hits of Neil Diamond, Elton John and Frank Sinatra, while Alex even joined a Finnish woman singing in her native language (or some phonetic semblance of it). It was a fun way to relax and let loose following the stress of the week and the entire season.

Since every good fairy tale starts the same way, we will close off this blog with our own mini fairytale. 

"Once upon a time, there was a girl and a boy who had a similar dream. They wanted to fly across the ice together and thrill the audience with their speed, their artistry, their athleticism and their ability to make the audience feel a connection to them and their story. They moved together to a distant land so they could learn from the great wizard, who challenged them with the mysteries of the sport. The wizard transformed the girl into a swan and let her fly. He transformed the boy into a tiger and let him prowl. He showed them wondrous places all around the world, filled with treasures of gold, silver and bronze. When it came time to Waltz, the wizard told the girl and the boy..."

Thank you for reading about our journey, and we look forward to continuing our fairy tale next season!

Ellie & Alex

Friday, March 6

"Tervist" from Tallinn!

Our fifth day here was light in terms of skating. We had one 30-minute practice session -- and, of course, all of the pageantry that goes along with that one session. Since this is competition, it means that during each practice session, each of the skaters wears his or her competition costumes -- hair and makeup included. For the guys, this amounts to an extra 15 minutes or so of prep time. For the girls, this can mean up to an additional 90 minutes of time, depending on the complexity of the hair or makeup for a given program. Fortunately, we didn't practice until 12:30 p.m., so we didn't have to get up ultra early to get ready.

The 20 teams that qualified for the free dance event all brought it (meaning their intensity) to practice today. We are attributing this to the fact that the teams are all avid icenetwork readers and were inspired by the inspirational phrase in Thursday's blog. OK, perhaps it's more likely that they are all just seasoned competitors who love the challenge that this sport provides. (We apologize if we were stroking our literary egos just a bit!)

In any case, this competitive nature led to some nail-biting moments on the ice today. There was a near collision with blades flying, when a team from Germany entered a cartwheeling choreographed lift within striking distance of another team. Skaters and coaches from the side of the rink screamed, the disaster was narrowly averted, and the team completed its lift while the audience gasped.

The men's short program was held in the afternoon, and the competition was fierce. Japan's Shoma Uno, who placed fifth at Four Continents last month, is in first with an eight-point lead over Russia's Adian Pitkeev, the 2014 world junior silver medalist. U.S. skaters Nathan Chen, Andrew Torgashev and Kevin Shum sit in ninth, 10th and 16th, respectively. Nathan and Andrew are within striking distance of the podium.  

The ladies free skate event took place in the evening. Karen Chen pulled up to an eighth-place finish, and Tyler Pierce finished the event in 19th, in a group that was dominated by positive Grades of Execution.

For the final junior dance event of the season -- the free dance Saturday afternoon -- there will certainly be some Cinderella stories. All of the teams will be figuratively dressed up for the ball, and having seen our competitors' programs, we know that there will be stories of love, fear, sorrow and ennui depicted.  

It should be a highly entertaining event, and we wish all the dancers the best of luck!

Thursday, March 5

Let's Bring It!

This ambitious phrase, borrowed from a personality-laden Estonian waiter at the walled city's Old Hansa medieval restaurant, sums up the junior short dance event and the entire day.

The Team USA dancers did an awesome job representing U.S. Figure Skating and the country. Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons brought their best stuff to the event. Owning the event's third-highest technical elements score, their short dance was fluid, smooth and very well matched, and they sit in fourth place going into the free dance. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, in ornate costumes that shimmered with Rumpelstiltskin-spun gold, skated their tribal-themed samba with commitment and verve, earning two +3 Grades of Execution (GOEs) on their upside down straight line lift. They enter the free dance in third place.

We had a great skate, posted a new ISU personal best and are in a very close group with six other teams. There are less than three points separating sixth place from our current 12th-place position, and we cannot wait to let our Swan Lake free dance take flight one last time, as we close out our season. It truly has been a fairy-tale season for us, and we are filled with gratitude for what we have been able to accomplish in only 11 months.

Following the dance event was the junior pairs free skate. Caitlin Fields and Ernie Utah Stevens "brought it" and finished fourth in the free skate, good for fifth overall. Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson had a fabulous triple twist early in their program, but an unfortunate fall on their throw triple loop dropped them to seventh overall.

Friday's events include ladies free skate and men's short program. We'll be cheering on Karen, Tyler, Andrew, Nathan and Kevin behind those big American flags you can see on the live feed!

Back to the Old Hansa restaurant -- this establishment is on the must-see list in Old Tallinn. Housed in an ancient building within the walled city, the medieval restaurant serves wild game dishes that are cooked using 15th century recipes and methods. Customers are informed that the game has been caught by local hunters in the forests around Tallinn, and the image of Hansel and Gretel's huntsman father, wearing his jerkin and carrying his musket, is a natural connection. Period-clad waitstaff make customers feel at ease in the foreign environment, and the atmosphere is raucous and jovial. When ordering their specialty, bear marinated in spices and cooked over a fire, "Let's Bring It" is the only appropriate response!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 4

Tervist from Tallinn!

Wednesday was a busy day here in Tallinn that included three round trips between the rink and the hotel for us. Fortunately, it is only a 15-minute trip by chartered bus, so the back-and-forth nature of this week has been manageable.

Before we review the day, it's interesting to note the complexity of the public transportation system in Tallinn. For a city with a population only slightly higher than Miami, there are a lot of ways to get around town. Tallinn offers its residents free access to gas-powered buses, street-level electric light rail train cars (trams) and electric buses powered by trolley-type wires (trolley-buses) combining for more than 70 different routes in and around the city. Once you add in coverage from the full-size heavy rail trains and taxicabs, one questions the need to actually own a car here.

Our trip to the arena takes us past the Russalka Memorial. This bronze statue depicts an angel holding a golden Orthodox cross in her right hand, stretched northward over the Gulf of Finland. The Russian word "rusalka" translates to the folk tale of the mermaid, who would seduce sailors to a watery grave. In this case, it refers to a Russian warship named Rusalka, which left Tallinn in 1893 headed for Finland. It sank 16 miles from the Finland coast, leaving no survivors, and the monument was erected 10 years later to commemorate the loss. While the meaning of the statue is mournful, the silhouette of the angel against the blue sky is absolutely beautiful.

Our practice today was great -- our bodies have adjusted to the travel, the time change and the differences in food, rest and exercise from our normal routine. The practice rink is part of the main arena complex, and from the inside, the horizontal and vertical slit windows provide a cool combination of light from, and views to, the outside world. The concrete building still has the curing smell of damp cement, and the addition of lightly stained wooden beams (rather than standard metal beams) to support the roof, makes for a visually stunning, albeit minimalist, interior. The practice rink walls tower in height, dwarfing the skaters at ice level. The judges have been watching practices from the upper level, making it difficult for us to project our expressions vertically, rather than at a more comfortable angle. (The image of Chicken Little, with his beak pointed upwards, keeps popping into mind!)

Following practice, we had the short dance draw for tomorrow. We skate 16th, Team USA dancers Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons are 18th and Quinn Carpenter and Lorraine McNamara are 26th.

We returned to the hotel for a quick dinner before heading back to the rink to cheer on our pairs skaters. Both teams gave it their all, and following the short program, Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson are in fifth, with Caitlin Fields and Ernie Utah Stevens close behind in seventh. The free skate should be a great event Thursday evening!

Congratulations to Tyler Pierce and Karen Chen, whose short program skates qualified them for the ladies free skate event, which takes place Friday. The junior ladies field here is remarkably strong and deep, which is a thrill for all skating enthusiasts.

Go Team USA!

Tuesday, March 3

"Tervist" from Tallinn!

Tuesday was our first day at the rink and our first chance to look around. Our hotel is adjacent to Old Tallinn, the kind of picturesque village that postcard creators dream about, complete with red-roofed buildings and winding cobblestone roads, and sprinkled with big, old trees.

Tallinn is located on the Gulf of Finland in northwestern Estonia, with its first fortress dating back to 1050. Over the centuries, it has come under Danish, German, Teutonic Knight, Swedish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet rule, before finally securing its independence in 1991.

What this colorful history means is that tourists can spy architectural influences from many of these reigns. Old Tallinn is surrounded by thick stone walls punctuated with fortress-like towers. Yet rising behind this medieval architecture, one can see cell phone towers, large glass office buildings and other indicators of the modern city's link to technology. In fact, Skype and cell phone manufacturer Ericsson are headquartered in Tallinn.

This contrast of old and new struck us as we approached the Tondiraba Ice Arena today. The rink's exterior looks like a contemporary take on a medieval fortress. Sporting the crowned lion from Tallinn's coat of arms, the blocky, concrete structure has vertical slit windows that look like they were designed to shield archers, and horizontal slit windows designed for muskets. The Zamboni the venue uses is clearly cutting edge (no pun intended), featuring a streamlined nose, red racing stripes and a vibrant blue underglow!

The complex opened last August and includes the main rink, two practice rinks and a curling rink. The World Junior Curling Championships are also taking place here this week, and the contrast between figure skaters -- bedecked in Swarovski crystals and competition makeup -- and the curlers -- wearing casual athletic pants with team jackets, with no concern for hair and makeup -- is striking.

Our two practices today were like "The Tortoise and the Hare." The first one was a little sluggish, as we've been off the ice for several days. The second was much stronger and faster, although we were plagued by some late-session muscle cramping. Alex recovered with the U.S. Figure Skating-provided NormaTec pants, which help massage out the byproducts from an intense workout.

The rest of Team USA has arrived. Alex is rooming with Kevin Shum, and Ellie is rooming with Tyler Pierce; both are singles competitors. The ladies and pairs short programs start Wednesday, with the short dance Thursday and the men's short program Friday. Good luck to the U.S. skaters competing Wednesday: Tyler, Karen Chen, Caitlin Fields and Ernie Utah Stevens, and Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson!

Thanks for reading and please check back tomorrow!

Monday, March 2

Greetings from Estonia! We are pleased to be back blogging for icenetwork and doubly pleased that we are blogging from our world junior championships debut!

If you read our Cup of Cro blog in October, you may remember that we like to have a theme to our blogs, and this one is no different. In researching Estonia and Tallinn over the past month, we kept coming across the same descriptive phrase used to reference the area: a fairy-tale village within a technological city. And since this season has been somewhat of a fairy-tale experience for us, we felt it was only fitting to use fairy tales as our theme!

We flew from Detroit on Sunday afternoon along with Ellie's mom and our coach, Igor Shpilband. Watching Ellie try to get comfortable before we boarded was like spying on Goldilocks as she was evaluating the three bears' chairs! In her typical non-conformist fashion, Ellie found a resting position that was "just right"...but one which the airport's interior designers likely never imagined.

We had a layover in Amsterdam, and we found some awesome and kitschy pieces of art. One was a giant iron bench, shaped like, well, a giant, and the "ironic" connection to our fairy tale theme wasn't lost on us!

We arrived in Tallinn on a rainy Monday afternoon. Following accreditation, we met up with our training mates from Novi, French ice dancers Angélique Abachkina and Louis Thauron, along with another one of our coaches, Fabian Bourzat. We share an apartment with Louis back home, but since he's been in Europe for the past several weeks, it was a mini-reunion of sorts. We all had dinner, got in a post-flight workout in the gym and then headed to our respective rooms.

Our morning Tuesday starts at 7 a.m., with a practice that will likely be attended by the officials from the dance event. We are looking forward to a restful night of sleep. 

Beauty is all around us here in Tallinn, and we are excited to share our explorations with you. Thanks for reading!

Ellie and Alex