Russians Ice-Dance Off With American Women

CLEVELAND -- The leaderboard of America's figure skating showcase is filled with Russian ice dancers.

Perhaps it's caused by a lack of quality U.S.-born men. Or the fact Russian-trained ice dancers have dominated the sport for most of three decades.

Regardless, three of the top five couples after Wednesday's original dance in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships have Russian men partnered with American women. Defending champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev are in first, with Debbie Koegel and Oleg Fediukov fourth and Alison Newman and Dmitri Boundoukin fifth.

Ever since Gorsha Sur, a world-class ice dancer, and Igor Shpilband, now a premier coach, defected in the early 1990s, the Russian influence - and participation - in American ice dancing has increased. Significantly.

By the next Olympics, it's highly possible U.S. citizens Tchernyshev and Fediukov will be on the U.S. team.

Fediukov became a citizen on Jan. 19, and Tchernyshev is in the process of getting his citizenship.

"I'm pretty sure it will come within one or two months," said Tchernyshev, who turned 29 on Sunday.

"I'm studying my history books for the test."

And Lang has been quizzing him, although she admitted, "I don't know half the answers."

Tchernyshev, whose grandfather won four Soviet titles (1936-39), was given a release in 1992 by the Russian Skating Federation, allowing a move to the United States. The U.S. Figure Skating Association granted him permission to compete and represent the nation.

Lang and Tchernyshev got together in 1997 after leaving other partners. Their rise has been rapid in an event renowned for glacial movement.

Trained by Shpilband and Elizabeth Coates at the Detroit Skating Club, Lang and Tchernyshev went from fifth in the nationals to third to first. They were 10th in their debut in the world championships last March.

"It was really special," said Tchernyshev, who was married to Russian star ice dancer Natalia Annenko. "It was the first international competition and was strange. I was there with all my friends I used to know in Russia."

The most difficult element of their teaming was communication.

"He did not speak much English," Lang said. "He's come a long way. We learned to mesh a little more, and whatever we did, it works."

Koegel and Fediukov will have to work hard to get to next month's worlds, since only two U.S. teams will go. But if he does get to Nice for that event, Fediukov will go as a proud new American.

"I came here because I fell in love with this country, not because I wanted to skate for the U.S. or the money was better," the 27-year-old Fediukov said.