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Waltzing on the Danube: Ice dancers blog from Linz

Pogrebinsky, Benoit give readers behind-the-scenes look at Austrian JGP
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U.S. junior bronze medalists Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit made their season debut in Linz, Austria. -Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit

U.S. ice dancers Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit competed at the Junior Grand Prix in Linz, Austria. They kept a blog for icenetwork.

Saturday, Sept. 12

Today was our final day here in Linz, and as we did our Danube River preparation work at home, we collected a number of quotes pertaining to rivers, in anticipation of possible inclusion in the blog. 

We gathered the sarcastic ("Denial ain't just a river in Egypt" -- Mark Twain), the uplifting ("Climb ev'ry mountain, ford ev'ry stream," -- The Sound of Music), the tongue-in-cheek, ("Oh we got trouble, right here in River City," -- The Music Man), the insightful, ("We never know the worth of water till the well is dry," -- Thomas Fuller), and the humorous, ("Never insult an alligator until after you have crossed the river,"- Cordell Hull, Father of the United Nations). 

After some discussion, we settled upon a quote that is positive and thought-provoking to end our time here.  

Being the final day of competition, the pairs, men's and ice dance had their long program events. It was a successful day for Team USA, with all competitors earning top 10 finishes. Vincent Zhou earned his second silver medal in the JGP Series, keeping the door to the JGP Final wide open. ISU personal bests were garnered by Vincent, Oleksiy Melnyk, Julia Beichler and Damian Dodge, Lindsay Weinstein and Jacob Simon, and ourselves.

We were very pleased with our performance. Skating first in the group, we completely committed to the program, pushing ourselves through to the finish. We told our story -- a contemporary take on the Romeo and Juliet theme -- and it was well received by the audience. This experience will certainly help us as we prepare for our second JGP event in the coming weeks!

Following the men's event, we toured Old Town Linz and all met up for a fun team dinner. Held at an Italian restaurant, skaters, coaches and parents were there to celebrate with one another, before heading home. We have opted to conclude our week with a day trip to Vienna, the birthplace of the waltz, before our flights home.

As we gaze out on the Danube, and we reflect on the figurative meaning of the river in our lives, the thought-provoking quote that we've chosen to guide us is by naturalist Donald L. Hicks:

"A river has many curves, but it always reaches the ocean." 

We look forward to continuing our journey and seeing what is around the curve!

Friday, Sept. 11

Guten Tag.

This is the second year in a row that we have been abroad on Sept. 11, and while representing our country on the ice is the most patriotic thing either of us has done, on Sept. 11th, that sense of patriotism intensifies even further. Today, we remember a day that solidified the unbreakable spirit and soul of our country, even in the face of the unimaginable, putting into perspective what is truly important. So many people came together in unity, 14 years ago, and changed our world.

Living in America -- a country that is a proverbial melting pot -- most of us can trace our ancestry. While both of us are U.S. born, we each trace our roots back along the Danube River. Ellie's parents are from Odessa, Ukraine, a major seaport on the Black Sea, near the mouth of the Danube. Alex's maternal great-grandparents were also Ukrainian, though, technically, they held Austrian citizenship due to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ellie's parents emigrated to the Unites States in the late 1980s, whereas Alex's great-grandparents immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s, and ultimately, his maternal grandparents moved from Canada to America in the 1960s. (If you are wondering about the name Benoit, it comes from the Quebec heritage of his paternal grandfather.)

Our practice today was also a melting pot, and it included the first- through fifth-place teams from short dance. The group included two Russian teams, one French team (which trains in Quebec), and two American teams. At this point in the competition, everyone is bringing their best game to the ice, and today was a prime example of that.

With the surface area of the rink being approximately 1,800 square meters, it seemed like everyone was magnetically attracted to the same few meters on the ice. There were multiple near misses and some pretty fierce maneuvering, which must have been somewhat entertaining to the officials who were watching. To add to the intrigue of the practice, we share part of our free dance music with one of the Russian teams. While the concept, choreography and expression are completely different between our two free dances, it was funny when the programs were played back to back.

Before our practice, we cheered on the Team USA pairs in their short program event. Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson are currently in fifth place, and Lindsay Weinstein and Jacob Simon are in ninth. The men skated their short program today, and Vincent Zhou is in third place with Oleksiy Melnyk in sixth going into the free skate. Bradie Tennell and Anna Grace Davidson finished the ladies event in 11th and 15th, respectively. Tomorrow, the competition concludes with the free dance and the men's and pairs' free skate.

Last week, when we were preparing for our Danube River themed blog, we stumbled upon a video of the most beautiful example of lyrical, radiant skating. Skated to Strauss's famous waltz, it connects the movement of the skater to the fluidity of water, with changes in dynamics and effortless transitions that are rarely seen. But what resonated most with us was the complete liberation with which the skater performed; and of all days, this is the one that should be marked with a performance of freedom. 

The event? The 1982 World Professional Figure Skating Championships. 

The skater? Janet Lynn.

Thursday, Sept. 10

The Sound of Music's most iconic scene shows Julie Andrews as she "twizzles" with her head thrown back and her arms outstretched atop an Austrian mountain. The orchestra swells, and Andrews sings, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." Even though the hillside used for this scene was actually in Germany, we couldn't help but make the connection with the movie as we took in the rolling countryside on our way to the rink this morning. In addition to Julie's twizzle-like turn, the movie also contains the gazebo dance of Rolf and Liesl and the Austrian Landler (waltz) of Georg and Maria. So what better place to hold this year's short dance event, which features the Starlight Waltz pattern dance, than Austria?

Our day started very early, as Ellie was up by 5 a.m. to get ready for our 8:30 warmup. Most teams skate the event day practice in their competition costumes; when we saw so many of the 21 teams all together, we were struck by the number of girls in some variation of greenish-blue and the number of guys wearing epaulettes. Either there is a common cultural identity linking waltzes to aqua chiffon and military dress, or there must have been a continental closeout sale on those two items.

After our warmup, we went back to the hotel to rest for a while, returning to the rink for our event in the afternoon.

The movement of a river can be peaceful and flowing one moment, and then, in an instant, ripple with rapids and surge toward its banks, and we like to approach our short dance with that same attitude. Igor has choreographed our program to start serenely, as Alex figuratively introduces Ellie to the world outside of her current boundaries. Our step sequence is featured in this segment, and the gentleness of the music allows us to lilt the steps and carve the turns, while staying true to the sentiment of the concept. As the music intensifies, Ellie's character is freed from her past restraints and she starts to experience life more fully. Reflecting this development, we dive into the pattern dance elements with energy and attack, while maintaining the elegance of the waltz. Following the twizzles and lift, Ellie's character is now filled with unbridled enthusiasm for life and love, and we fly into our ending choreography with just enough control to pause, caress and accept each other for the final pose.

We thoroughly enjoyed performing our short dance. Igor has made some choreographic changes over the summer that place our highest point-earning elements (pattern dance and step sequence) early in the program. This strategy worked for us in that we earned the most technical points for these three elements across the entire event. A little too much adrenaline led to a slight bobble on one twizzle and caused us to shorten the length of our lift, but we reached a new ISU personal best and earned the second-highest component scores in the event.

Our teammates, Julia Biechler and Damian Dodge, showed the experience gained from their JGP Slovakia outing this season and skated very consistently, also reaching a new ISU personal best. Congratulations to them! We skate the free dance Saturday, and it should be a fascinating event, with only 3.17 points separating the top four teams.

Following the dance event, we stayed at the rink to cheer on our ladies. In an incredibly deep field, Bradie Tennell and Anna Grace Davidson put themselves in the mix for the free skate by placing ninth and 14th, respectively, in the short.

As we reflect on the day's events and look forward to Friday and Saturday, Alex is reminded of a quote by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hal Boyle that he uses for inspiration: "What makes a river so restful is that it doesn't have any doubt -- it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn't want to go anywhere else."

Wednesday, Sept. 9

Today was filled with practice ice, event draws and officials meetings. Since the morning was rather cool and we were carrying both sets of costumes, we opted to take the shuttle bus to the rink. We've been told that it's a pleasant 10-minute walk to the rink along the Danube, but we haven't had a chance to do it yet. 

The Keine Sorgen EisArena is an impressive structure. From the outside, it is a combination of curved glass and angular concrete. When first viewed, it appears to be brand new in design, and then, in the next moment, reminds us of the 1970s Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World. We learned that the rink was built in 1986; because the building has been so well maintained, it has aged incredibly gracefully, making our difficulty in dating it understandable.

Our day started with our short dance draw at noon. At the rink, Ellie used her magic fingers to draw 12th of 21 teams. We skate last in the third group and are happy with our draw. Team USA dancers Julia Biechler and Damian Dodge skate 18th, so we will be able to cheer them on from the stands. 

Our first session was held on the practice surface at the EisArena. It is bright and surrounded by a ribbon of plate glass at the level of the boards. Most rinks don't have windows to the outside, so it was an unusual experience for us. The short dance practice was attended by the officials for our event, and we had a very strong session, sharing the ice with Julia and Damian as well as the teams from the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan.

Two hours later, we had our free dance practice, which was held on the competition surface. The ice on this side is fabulous: It is as clear as glass, and we could see all the way down to the paint on the concrete floor. Similar to the arena in Tallinn, Estonia (site of the 2015 World Junior Championships), the structural beams of the EisArena are wooden. However, the addition of skylights between the beams gives the arena an incredibly light and airy feel. This ambience should be a great backdrop to our lilting short dance but quite a contrast for our free dance, which is darker in nature. Given the fact that the dance officials were away at a meeting, our free dance practice, while strong, was a little more easygoing in nature.

At the EisArena, we ran into journalist Klaus-Reinhold Kany, who we met in Tallinn last March. He shared some advice about our upcoming day trip to Vienna, and we caught up on skating shoptalk. One of the unsung advantages of competing at this level is the opportunity to connect with enthusiasts from across the globe. Just like the Danube links 10 different countries, extending its reach all the way to the Atlantic Ocean via the Bavarian Canal, figure skating is a single, common river connecting people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities through a shared interest in the sport.

Following a "traditional Austrian" dinner of chicken parmesan in the competitors' dining area, we hung out with Bradie Tennell, Anna Grace Davidson, Julia, Damian, Brian Johnson and the Czech dance team (Alexandr Sinicyn and Nicole Kuzmich) on the roof terrace of our hotel. This vantage point provided a great view of the hotel's courtyard dining area below and the sunset over the Danube River. Alex, determined to get the perfect sunset shot using only his camera phone, was somehow successful in capturing the serenity of the rippling water, while the skies exploded in color.

With the successes of the day in hand -- a good draw, two great practices, relaxing fun with friends and the perfect sunset -- we are headed to our rooms and a peaceful night of rest, while the lyrics to the Strauss waltz float in our heads: "Danube so blue, so bright and blue, through vale and field you flow so calm…"

Tuesday, Sept. 8

"Guten tag" from Linz, Austria! We're happy to be blogging for a third time for icenetwork so we can share the ebb and flow of what's happening here this week. We concluded last season's final world junior championships blog entry in Tallinn with an unfinished fairy tale (Estonia stories), which is about to continue here in Austria...

"[The wizard] 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, "You must travel to the birthplace of the Viennese Waltz." Holding his wand aloft, he created a star light for the girl and boy to ride to Austria, landing "by the beautiful blue Danube."

By this time, we hope you've guessed that this week's blog theme is the Danube River. In addition to being the title of arguably the most famous of the Strauss Viennese waltzes (in a year of waltz short dances), the Danube plays a fundamental role in Linz, in Austria and in much of Europe. At 1,785 miles in length, it begins in the Black Forest of Germany and flows into the Black Sea near the borders of Moldova, Ukraine and Romania.

Like the river, our travel day started in blackness, as we received multiple urgent emails from our team leader alerting us of the upcoming Lufthansa pilot strike. Most of the U.S. team was scheduled to fly through Frankfurt on Lufthansa, and several of their flights had already been cancelled. While we focused our attention on the final hours of practice on Labor Day, our parents flooded the phone lines to find alternate travel options, in case our flight was impacted. As it turned out, we were spared and our flights to Frankfurt and Linz were uneventful.

Our group was met at the Blue Danube Airport Linz by dirndl-clad girls, who completed their authentic Austrian look with some awesome high-top Converse sneakers. We arrived at our hotel by lunchtime on Tuesday, but since we couldn't check in for several hours, we did some sightseeing. Linz is a historic city, extending on both sides of the Danube. Long barges, smaller recreational boats, tourist cruising vessels and luxury river cruise boats all share the waterway, while the banks are lined with walking paths and observation areas.

We enjoyed lunch with Team USA skaters Vincent Zhou (who is Alex's roommate), Oleksiy Melnyk, Anna Grace Davidson and Bradie Tennell, while the remaining American skaters (Julia Biechler, Damian Dodge, Lindsay Weinstein, Jacob Simon, Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson) didn't arrive until much later. Our team leader, Pilar Bosley, organized a fun group meeting for us during dinner, which was a great way to end an extremely long day.

Wednesday starts with our short dance draw and several practice sessions. For now, we are headed to our own "River of Dreams" (aka to sleep). Thanks for reading and please check back tomorrow!