Ice Network

Tobias, Tkachenko make debut after long wait

Israeli ice dance duo tops Lake Placid field in convincing fashion
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Noting that the duo complements each other quite well physically for an ice dance team, coach Igor Shpilband says he has high hopes for Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko. -Daphne Backman

The wait for Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko is over. After sitting out last season, the duo made their competitive debut at the Lake Placid Ice Dance International last week.

Representing Israel, they defeated 12 other couples to take gold with 146.08 points, placing first in both the short dance and free dance by large margins.

"Winning so decisively was a great confidence booster for us," Tobias said. "Of course, we still have a lot of work to do with our levels, and we need to train our programs more, but that's normal for the beginning of the season. Overall, our feedback and scores showed we are on a very good path."

That path has taken a serpentine route.

The skaters, ages 23 and 28, trained together in the summer of 2008, but Tkachenko opted to skate with fellow Russian Ekaterina Riazanova. They landed on the Russian podium three times, placing ninth in the world in 2012.

In 2010, Tobias teamed up with Lithuanian Deividas Stagniunas, winning bronze at 2011 Skate America and earning two top-10 finishes in Europe. They finished 17th at the Sochi Olympics.

Troubled by back injuries, Stagniunas retired from competition after the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships, where he and Tobias finished 15th. Tkachenko and Riazanova had ended their partnership a few months earlier, after placing fifth in Europe and failing to qualify for Sochi.

"Deividas' retirement was hard to take, but, of course, I respected his decision," Tobias said. "At first, I thought maybe I would go back to college. After a few weeks, I decided I didn't feel quite finished with figure skating yet, but I had to figure out who was available.

"I initially looked if there was anybody Lithuanian or American, because I was a citizen of those countries and wanted to show loyalty," she continued. "But it was the same old story a lot of ice dance girls go through."

Her thoughts turned to Tkachenko. Her coach, Igor Shpilband, dug up the skater's cell number.

"I didn't see any sense in continuing skating, because I knew a lot of young Russian couples were coming up," Tkachenko said. "So, I was thinking maybe to start coaching, or do something else. I went on a vacation in Egypt, and the first day I was there, Igor called me."

After a successful tryout in May 2014, Tkachenko and his wife, Ksenia, moved to Novi, Michigan, that summer.

"I couldn't believe it when he said he would do it," she said. "I have always thought he is one of the most amazing dancers in the world and he never got the results he deserved. It's incredible he is not an Olympian; that's a travesty to me."

After sitting out the 2014-15 season, Tobias and Tkachenko are eligible under ISU rules to compete for other countries. With their goal the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, representing Israel was by far the most reasonable scenario.

"I am Jewish and am so proud of Israel," Tobias said. "It holds values similar to the United States, in a region that is just very unstable. I think we both have a lot of pride representing a country like that."

Tobias, who already holds an Israeli passport, is optimistic about her partner's chances for gaining Israeli citizenship.

"I think if we do our job and get good results, then [Tkachenko's citizenship] will come," she said. "There can never be enough voices for Israel. It's a very small country and it needs all the support it can get."

"It's a new chapter in my life; I'm really open to it," Tkachenko said. "I'm doing my best for representing Israel. I think we are going to be a great couple and I'm really positive."

The skaters spent the last 14 months or so hard at work at Shpilband's training site in Novi, concentrating on the basics: speed, stroking and matching lines.

"We focused on making original lifts; it took us months to be able to do them," Tobias said. "Some of the work was with (Cirque du Soleil acrobat) Oleg Ouchikov, some of it we did ourselves, some of it was (coach) Adrienne [Lenda]."

"I'm very excited about this team; they exceed my expectations," Shpilband said. "He was always a strong skater, but he looks a lot bigger with [Tobias] than with his previous partner. He changed his exercise (program) and he is very big and muscular, and she is very feminine, so I think they complement each other very well."

There was one final, minor glitch. Shpilband choreographed their free dance to Franz Liszt's "Liebesträume" before the ISU announced that the Ravensburger Waltz was the required short dance rhythm for 2015-16.

"Two waltzes -- that's just one too many," Tkachenko said with a laugh.

"We didn't want to get pigeonholed into one style," Tobias added.

Free dance, take two, is set to Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances." Shpilband choreographed their short dance to music from the 1950 and 2015 Disney Cinderella soundtracks.

In Lake Placid, Tobias and Tkachenko achieved the short dance and free dance minimum technical element scores (TES) required to enter the 2016 European Figure Skating Championships. They also earned the required free dance TES for entry to the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships but missed the short dance minimum TES by 1.5 points. They hope to compete next at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City in September.

"I think they will be one of the big surprises this year," Shpilband said. "I really believe that. I'm not going to speculate where they might end up, but to me, they can compete with the top teams in the world. They are right there with the material, skating level and performance. They can do it."

New U.S. team takes second: Danielle Thomas and Daniel Eaton, who teamed up this spring, placed second to the Israelis in both the short dance and free dance, earning 129.96 points and gaining the minimum TES scores needed to compete at the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

"I am very, very happy with this team," their coach, Marina Zoueva, said. "Many skaters work hard; these two not only work hard, but they also have a true vision for where they want their partnership to go."