VANCOUVER - Conflicted?
Gennadi Karponosov knows conflicted.
In 1994, he was conflicted.
Then, he left his homeland, where he and his wife are Olympic heroes. Even as tracer bullets flew outside his apartment in Moscow, he was conflicted.
In September of 2007, he was conflicted.
Then, he left his American sponsor, the University of Delaware, which smoothed the path for Karponosov and his family to settle and work and thrive in their new home. He and his wife, Natalia Linichuk, decided to move their coaching base to IceWorks, in Aston, Pa. It is a four-rink facility better suited for the space and cost of hosting world-class skaters and their coaches.
Tomorrow, he won't be conflicted.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the most decorated ice dancers in U.S. history, will skate in the compulsory dance, the first of three programs. So will Russian couple Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the reigning world champions. Italian upstarts Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, surprise silver medalists at the European Championships last month, could challenge.
All are medal contenders. All moved to Delaware County to be coached by the Russian legends.
Karponosov and his wife will have no favorite tomorrow.
They have a legacy of polishing the world's best skaters over the past 2 decades. They do not need to pick favorites.
Karponosov and Linichuk won gold in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y. They retired from skating the next year. She began to coach almost immediately. He eventually became a vice president of sport at the club Dynamo Moscow. For years, this was their life; a good apartment in their native city, family, friends and fame, a gifted daughter, Anastasiya, born in 1985.
And then, anarchy, and terror. With the end of socialism in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union splintered, funding for athletics in Russia dwindled.
"Whenever journalists ask me, 'What's better for sport: socialism or now?' " Karponosov said. "I always say, 'Socialism was better.' "
But socialism was dead. In its place, at first, came mayhem.
"It was a difficult time. When Perestroika began, when [Boris] Yeltsin took over, the economy fully crashed. It didn't look like the future was going to change," Karponosov said.
It changed. It changed for the worse.
In October of 1993, the economy crushed, violent crime skyrocketing, riots erupted in Moscow as Yeltsin struggled to remain in power.
Yeltsin's police clashed with demonstrators. Tanks shelled the Russian White House, the core of the resistance. Official numbers placed deaths in the dozens; unofficial estimates placed the number of dead closer to 2,000.
It all happened just blocks from the apartment where Karponosov and Linichuk lived with little Anastasiya.
"It was very dangerous. In the evening, you could see the tracer bullets nearby," he said, mimicking their deadly sound, his index finger describing a bullet's path: "Pschew. Pschew. Pschew."
As tanks rumbled toward the White House in the morning darkness on Oct. 4, Gennadi left his apartment and made his way across town, avoiding the armed rebellion. He spirited some Italian ice dancers to the airport, where they flew home to safety.
"I had to get them out," he said.
His family, too, had an escape.
Linichuk coached at the University of Delaware's Ice Skating Science and Development Center in the summer of 1993. She came back with an offer to coach at UD full-time.
Karponosov and his family loved Russia. But he had an 8-year-old daughter. He had a wife coaching an underfunded sport.
Newark, Del., represented sanctuary.
Reluctantly, they left early the next year.
After a lifetime in Moscow, Newark was bucolic.
"It is so quiet in Newark," said Karponosov. "Very many trees."
Things grow well in the middle of quiet greenery.
Anastasiya adjusted nicely. She earned a degree from Brown, where she studied international relations and political science. She now is at Columbia pursuing her master's degree. She quit skating at a young age and developed into a world-class ballroom dancer. She speaks five languages.
Their coaching careers blossomed, too.
Linichuk and Karponosov became known as "The Closers." They could take the best ice dancers, find their flaws, reconstruct them from the ground up and make them winners.
They guided dominant Russian dancers Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov to Olympic gold medals in 1994 and 1998. Their stable included world champions and 1998 Olympic silver medalists Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov, of Russia.
They coached Bulgarian couple Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski to consecutive world championships. But, on top of the world in 2007, Staviski, driving drunk in his Hummer in Bulgaria, killed another motorist. He quit the sport.
Right about that time, the coaches found themselves squeezed for expensive ice time for their high-profile clients at UD. They left UD without animosity, but not without reservation.
"They were so good to us," Karponosov said. "From the very start, they made our lives so good. So easy to be here."
Life got good again.
Within months of their leaving UD, Belbin and Agosto, stagnated since their silver medal in 2006, called and hired Linichuk and Karponosov. Domnina and Shabalin called soon after. The coaches asked Belbin and Agosto if they would mind sharing; they did not.
Now, every day, the talent overload threatens to melt the ice.
They train simultaneously, four of the world's best skaters on one rink coached by the world's best minds; imagine, Kobe and LeBron running drills for Phil Jackson in the same gym.
Each couple sees every adjustment, every failure, every breakthrough.
"Every day is difficult for them, because every day is competition. It is good; you must have competition," Karponosov said. "But we must control the situation."
Agosto's back and Shabalin's knee hindered progress in 2008. Still, it took a while for things to mesh, as Karponosov rebuilt them and Linichuk reshaped them.
There was conflict, naturally, elite athletes chafing under elite coaches.
"This year is much, much better than last year. They needed to learn us," Karponosov said. "We needed to learn them."
They learned. Domnina and Shabalin narrowly defeated Belbin and Agosto in the 2009 World Championships. It provided validation all around, the latest testament to the rare husband/wife coaching team.
If the coaches have a chemistry, Linichuk is the main ingredient.
"She's not just the head coach. She's the guts," Karponosov said. "All the skaters are under her wing. She is like mother. And mother-in-law. And sister."
She controls the music, costumes and choreography, the emotion, the feeling. She's the good cop. Sweetly, she will coax, said Agosto:
"She'll say, 'Babies. It's close to well. But not enough.' "
Gennadi is less coddling. He nitpicks.
"He drives us a little crazy," Scali said.
"All the time, bad cop, it's me," Karponosov said with a dry chuckle. "For me, it is the compulsory dance. Technique. Discipline."
He teaches his dancers to skate into the ice, not on top of it, an exhausting method of skating, but one that translates power.
It was everything Belbin and Agosto lacked - especially Belbin.
"I gained, like, 10 pounds of muscle in my thighs just from working with him," she said. "I have jeans I can't wear anymore."
The lessons soon will end.
The Italians will train in Aston at least through the next World Championships, but Shabalin's fraying right knee will make this his last season. He frequently has to stop during practice. Belbin and Agosto also expect to retire from international competition.
"I don't know how to describe how it feels," Karponosov said. "Maybe it's like a teacher who teaches you not just 1 year, but from first grade through 12th. This is the most difficult day in a coach's life."
That's not conflict.