Charlie White and Meryl Davis, with their coach Marina Zueva, celebrate their U.S. title last month in Boston. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
Sochi, Russia -- At the start of the mass migration of Russian professionals to North American in 1991, Marina Zueva, a figure skating coach and choreographer of considerable note, joined in.
At the Red Army Sports Club, her reputation for combining athleticism with prodigious artistry, the heart and soul of figure skating, was well-established. Among her pupils were the great Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, the two-time Olympic champions and four time world champions.
After a brief stop in Ottawa, Zueva landed in the figure skating mecca of Metro Detroit, coaching and choreographing programs.
Two decades after her arrival, her pupils read like a Who’s Who list: reigning world ice dance champions Meryl White and Charlie Davis, Olympic champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the retired three-time four continents champions Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto.
With at least five other pupils skating at the 2014 Sochi Games — Maia and Alex Shibutani, who could compete for a bronze in ice dancing; Madison Chock and Evan Bates; and Gracie Gold, a promising young 19-year-old who may return the thrill to American women’s figure skating — Zueva is one of the great coaches working anywhere in the world.
“When I teach in Russia, I was already different,” she said of her style and the old Soviet system that produced magnificent, majestic figure skaters.
“First of all, just a lifestyle. My life idea is doing the thing I do with love.
“And my first students also, that situation helped me to build that more, my idea of life,” she said of Gordeeva and the late Grinkov, who suffered a massive heart attack in 1994 training in New Jersey for an ice show.
As she mentions his name, Zueva’s voice cracks.
“I work with them first like age 11 and age 14 and built their career up to Olympic medals, and also professional competition,” she said.
“As coach, to begin like that, and the first experience of coaching goes to gold medal, it made me feel like, ‘Oh, I’m doing right, just to love what I’m doing, love my students and just to create beauty on ice.’”
The passion was alive then, and is now. And while there was a legacy of training championship figure skaters in Metro Detroit when Zueva and her former partner Igor Shpilband arrived, they not only reinvigorated the scene, they made it thrive.
Molding a winner
It is the association with Zueva that, along with their considerable intelligence and hard work, helped put Davis and White over the top.
In the case of two of her star pupils, the love is reciprocated.
“One of the really special things about Marina is that she’s not just coaching us athletically, but she’s also really great at the details, the nuances, the really kind of artistic moments in the program,” said Davis who, with her partner of 17 years, skates for the gold Sunday and Monday at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
“So much of the day is focused on training the program, being in the best physical shape we can possibly be. But we certainly spend a lot of time focusing on the nuances to bring the program up to a new level as well.”
White said that a key to their success is consistency in all things, including their year-round training with Zueva at the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton.
Asked if their training changed at all as the Games neared, given that their chief competitors — and friends — Virtue and Moir train under Zueva at the same rink, White said it never could be so.
“No, no changes in that regard,” he said. “We’re all pretty much on a similar training program to what we have been for our whole careers together. I wouldn’t expect that to change.”
'My heart of love'
Zueva was a huge loss for Russia.
“When I came to North America, it was different,” she said. “A free country compared to Russia, is how it was.
“And it was not exactly the style of coaching I was used to, just similar. In Russia coaches different, I can tell you, their style. But of course I bring my knowledge of what I started, my experience.
“I always think when a student comes to me, first of all, they come to learn from me, to have a good atmosphere.
“I mean to help. My heart of love, right?”
Zueva said the looks of disappointment on the faces of her skaters across the years when they do not skate well in competition continually drives that point home.
The sport and coaching and designing programs are her love. But the skaters want to excel.
“And I knew it,” she said. “I saw it after competition. I was really sorry when they were so disappointed with results. And, of course, I feel it is my job to make them happy even after competition, and to have success with results.
“That’s a combination that makes me drive, to just go.”