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Samuelson, Bates back at full strength

Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates will return to competition in Lake Placid after Emily suffered a serious hand injury.
Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates will return to competition in Lake Placid after Emily suffered a serious hand injury. (Michelle Harvath / icenetwork.com)

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By Lynn Rutherford
(08/21/2007) - Favorites to take home gold at the World Junior Championships this March, U.S. junior ice dance champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates instead had a frightening accident. Now, the Ann Arbor, Mich., teens are back on track and are ready to kick off the Junior Grand Prix season in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

Sometimes, amid the whirl of sequins and chiffon, we forget that ice dancing is a sport. But Emily Samuelson can never again forget.

Performing the most important free dance of her life, the 17 year old stumbled during a circular step sequence. One moment she was turning on one foot, interpreting a Latin medley; the next, she lay on her back on the ice. In a flash, her partner, Evan Bates, stepped on her left hand, opening a sizable gash.

"I saw her hand there and fell to my knees so I didn't put my full weight on it," the 18-year-old Bates remembered. "It's lucky it wasn't worse."

It was bad enough. U.S. Figure Skating team doctor Craig Westin described the cut as "on the back of the left hand, (extending) from the third finger to the base by the thumb." Although Samuelson tried to convince officials to put her back on the ice, the wound was too deep.

"I remembered that you could take a two-minute break and come back to finish your program," Samuelson said. "I thought maybe they could put a Band-Aid on it, but they told me it was too deep. And, now that I think about it, it also would have been a real mess."

As it turned out, a tendon was completely severed. The team's dream of gold at the World Junior Championships ended, at least for that season.

Fortunately for Samuelson, expert medical care was nearby. The competition was held in Oberstdorf, Germany, just an 1 1/2-hour drive from the Ravensburg Center for Hand Surgery. The wound was sutured closed, and Samuelson was driven to Ravensburg for surgery the next day.

Then, the recovery period started.

"In Germany, they told me I would be back on the ice in one week, so I thought 'Great, no big deal,'" Samuelson said. "But when I got home and talked to doctors, they said at least three weeks. Plus, I needed treatment the entire time to build the tendon back up."

The skater had two months of physical therapy and had to wear a plastic hand splint for a month and a half while practicing. During the treatment period, the couple's coach and choreographer, Iouri Tchesnitchenko, created their new routines.

"It was slow," Tchesnitchenko said. "We choreographed the free dance with Evan before Emily was back on the ice. Then, once she came back, she couldn't do certain elements."

"We found new ways to practice," Samuelson said. "Evan would hold my wrist instead of my hand. We just worked through it."

Tchesnitchenko, who moved to Ann Arbor in 1999, has built a powerful ice dancing school there with her partner, Iaroslava Netchaeva. The two coaches also train the brother-and-sister duo of Madison and Keiffer Hubbell, one of Samuelson and Bates' top rivals on the Junior Grand Prix circuit and the 2008 World Junior Championships.

Bates believes the daily on-ice competition is a key to both teams' success.

"Having (the Hubbells) train next to us motivates and pushes us; there's not a day we can relax," he said. "It's not an ill-natured kind of thing, it's just that we're all working to get better."

"I like having other people around at competitions who know what I'm going through," said Samuelson, who roomed with Madison Hubbell at the 2007 World Junior. "Iouri has us do a goofy warm-up routine, with push-ups and all, and I'm glad we don't have to do it alone."

At JGP Lake Placid, Samuelson and Bates will debut two new programs: an original dance set to Russian folk music and a free program to Italian tenor Alessandro Safina's "Luna."

"It is moving, very powerful. I first heard it three years ago and have wanted to use it ever since. I was just waiting for the kids to grow up," Tchesnitchenko said.

"All of the lifts are new; there are no old elements, except some passages of the footwork are similar to last season," Bates added.

It was June before the team could practice those new lifts and spins at full strength. Now, nothing remains of Samuelson's injury but a large scar on the back of her hand. The couple hoped to try out their routines at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in early August, but Bates developed pain in his back. An MRI indicated three mild bulging disks; other reports said it might just be muscle strain. The skater took 12 days off, which seemed to cure the problem, but the couple had to withdraw from the event. A few weeks later, they're finally taking that trip to Lake Placid, anxious to get the new season off to good start.

"Emily and I are excited to compete again," Bates said. "We hated to skip the summer competition, but we had to get healthy for our international competitions.

"The accident was kind of a freak thing. It ended the season on a bitter note, but now I think we're better than ever."