Odd couple hopes to beat the odds
Khokhlova, Andreev hard at work in Canton
|Jana Khokhlova hopes her unconventional choice to partner with Fedor Andreev will pay off. (Klaus Reinhold-Kany)|
After their worlds debut in 2006, Khokhlova's ultra-flexibility and flamboyant style, aided by Russia's powerful ice dance tradition, propelled them through the ranks: eighth at worlds in 2007, third in 2008 and a European title in 2009. Along the way, they won two national titles.
After that, the team lost favor with judges, placing a disappointing sixth at the 2009 worlds, fourth at that fall's Skate America and ninth at the Vancouver Olympics. At the 2010 worlds, they withdrew after the original dance and Novitski soon retired.
"Sergei had to finish his career mainly because of his knee; he had to get [pain-killing injections] before each competition, and this was not good for the rest of his life," Khokhlova said. "And there was no very good partner in Russia at that moment."
That sent Khokhlova looking far afield. Her choice was surprising, to say the least: the 24-year-old champion teamed with Fedor Andreev, who at 28 has had careers as a single skater, race car driver and model, but never as an ice dancer.
"I had come to Canton [Michigan] in April to make a tryout with [Lithuanian ice dancer] Deividas Stagniunas, but I always also had an eye on Fedor," Khokhlova said. "And with him, it clicked right away. I had planned to stay in the U.S. for only one week, but then I had to stay a week longer because the flights back to Europe were canceled [due to] this volcano in Iceland. And during this second week we found out that we would match together very well."
It isn't as far-fetched as it sounds, said Andreev's mother, Marina Zoueva, who with Igor Shpilband coaches the team in Canton.
"The steps are quite easy for them," she said. "Last year Fedor competed [as a single skater] at Skate Detroit and he got a Level 4 for his step sequence and his spins from [ISU technical specialist] David Kirby. Of course, he is still learning how to partner, how to take command [of the team] on the ice."
The Moscow-born Andreev, who settled with his family in Ottawa when he was seven, has a long and interesting history. He won the Canadian men's junior title in 1999 and a national bronze medal in 2003. With his star on the rise, he injured his back the next season while training quads. The problem forced Andreev to leave skating in the early part of 2005, and he traveled to New York, Thailand and Hong Kong for nearly a year to pursue drift racing and work with clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch and other modeling clients.
"I did quite a bit of runway shows; I did a couple of TV commercials, even stupid things like presentations and all sorts of hosting events," he said at the time. "Whatever you can get, you know?"
Andreev returned in the fall of 2007 to win two Canadian qualifying competitions and placed eighth at his nationals in 2008, dropping to ninth the following year. Last season, he attempted to compete for Azerbaijan, but that country's federation could not gain ISU approval for his entry at Europeans and worlds.
"Igor [Shpilband] had always wanted to get me into ice dancing," Andreev said. "In the last two years I coached ice dancing a lot and helped out when Igor and Marina were away at competitions, so I gained a lot of knowledge of the rules. I showed elements and steps for other couples sometimes, so ice dance is no longer new to me."
Shpilband said his instincts about Andreev were correct: he's a natural ice dancer.
"Jana and Fedor have been together for only three months now, and you can see every week how hard they work and how much they improve," said the coach, who with Zoueva also trains the two top couples in the world: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
"They found a good chemistry. It is really a lot of fun to work with them. Of course, the Golden Waltz part in the new short dance is not yet perfect; this is the most difficult thing for Fedor, because [Golden Waltz] is the hardest compulsory dance ever. But they can play the relationship between man and woman very well, it is almost natural for them."
The couple's height difference -- Khokhlova is just five foot two, while Andreev stands over six feet -- might work against them in some elements, but with ice dancing's increasing emphasis on difficult lift positions, it could also be an advantage.
"I am impressed [with] how fast his progress goes," Khokhlova said. "He is a strong man; he can lift me easily. Because of our proportions our lifts are very challenging. All of his elements are improving equally. We have already started to skate as one person and in good harmony."
Zoueva choreographed the team's entire short dance -- an ISU-fostered hybrid of the compulsory and original dance segments introduced this season -- to Waltz selections, but prefers not to reveal her music choices just yet.
"Their short dance music will be a big surprise, especially for the public in Russia; the music is well known in Russia, but not so famous in the West," she said. "We chose to do only Waltzes and not add any Tango, foxtrot or quickstep music because the Waltz is from an era when these other rhythms did not exist yet."
Andreev admitted he's had to work hard at perfecting his Waltz technique.
"We work about 40 percent with Marina, 40 percent with Igor and 20 percent with ballroom coaches," he said. "I still have to improve on how to hold her in a perfect way."
The couple's free dance is designed to take advantage of the couple's romantic chemistry, Zoueva said. "It is a medley of Beatles songs from their album Abbey Road, at a mature time of their career, with vocals from them. We chose this because these are songs from a time when the Beatles were mature enough to sing this, just like Jana and Fedor.
"One song is "Oh Darling." It really shows a story between a man and a woman. At the moment they are not a couple in life, but who knows for the future. Young people are sometimes quicker than we old people think."
Andreev is a bit more reticent.
"We are very good friends and understand each other very well," he said. "I do not want to say more at the moment."
The couple, who hopes for both a fall international assignment and a bit of financial support from the Russian Skating Federation, plans to travel to Moscow to show figure skating officials their programs at the end of September or beginning of October.
"I have a [U.S.] visa for six months now, but when I get back to Russia, I must do something," Khokhlova said. "We are not sure what, but we will do something, because I want to move to the U.S."
"We are in contact with good lawyers," Andreev added. "They will get the right papers for us. Our final goal is certainly the next Olympic Games. I have a Russian and a Canadian passport, so it is no problem to compete for Russia at the Olympics."
The team is aiming high: one of the three spots on the Russian team for the 2011 European Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, in January.
While Olympic bronze medalists Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin are no longer competing, plenty of other more experienced Russian teams will vie for spots, and Zoueva admits it's an ambitious goal.
"We will see if they can make the European, or even world, team," she said. "My son wants to try, and they look very promising, but it is too early to say now. Russian nationals will decide."