Coaches Emigrating

By Kent McDill

February 1, 2014

   In The Loop Extended Articles

Life is a journey, they tell us, and sometimes that journey takes you far from home.

So it is for many figure skating coaches, and often they find themselves making a new home for themselves in the United States. Here are a few stories of notable coaches who made a new home for themselves in the land of the free.

Nicks is a former world champion in pairs skating, winning the 1953 World Championship with his sister, Jennifer, while skating for his native England. 

The pair retired after that competition, and Nicks moved to South Africa to coach. He moved back to England in 1960, then soon found himself coaching in British Columbia, Canada. One year later, the majority of the U.S. national skating team was killed in the infamous 1961 plane crash, and Nicks was asked to move to the United States to help rebuild the nation’s skating fortunes.

Nicks accepted a coaching position in California and has been living in the United States ever since.

It was fairly easy because the years before that, when I was a competitive skater, I moved around a lot to different competitions,’’ Nicks said in an interview with PSA. “When I was a competitor, I always greatly admired the American skaters. They had better technique, better motivation, and I thought at that point the United States was the center of competitive skating in the world. They had wonderful skaters, great depth of skaters, a great variety of coaches. As a coach, it was always my dream to come to the Unites States to teach.”

Nicks was only 32 years old when he made the move.

There is paperwork to be filled out when internationals come to the United States to work on a permanent basis, and there was a bit of a hang-up with Nicks’ paperwork.

“I had to come on my green card from Canada where I was working,’’ Nicks said. “When I came down in September of ’61, my documentation had not come through. I had to drive from Vancouver to Los Angeles with my wife and young son without any legal documentation. I was in the United States working illegally for about six weeks, after which I had to come back to Canada and complete the paperwork.”

The year 1961 was a time when the United States was in unrest socially, as civil rights protests broke out in the South and John Kennedy became president. The hippie movement and the Vietnam War were not far behind.

“I had lived in London during the war (World War II), and that was a difficult time,’’ Nicks said. “Los Angeles was a big city, a completely different environment than I had been used to. I remember driving in with my wife, we came down the freeway and all of a sudden we were in a six-lane highway with cars on every side of us driving 70, 80 miles an hour. The first six months were very difficult.”

Those six months were difficult in work, too, as Nicks replaced a favored coach who had been killed in the crash.
“A lot of people weren’t too enthusiastic about me,’’ he said. “They didn’t know me. But once I started to have any sort of success, things got much easier. There is nothing like having a few winners.”

The success included work with Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Jenni Meno and Todd Sands, Sasha Cohen and Ashley Wagner.

In 2008, after 47 years, Nicks became a U.S. citizen.

“I spent 44 years thinking about it,’’ Nicks said with a laugh. “I did it because I was appreciative of this country and what it had done for me. But it has been my policy for the last 50 years, although I coach many skaters from many countries, I only direct United States skaters in international competitions.”

Nicks said that although he has a small wager on England’s success in this summer’s World Cup of soccer, he considers California his home.

“Jumping Joe’’ Sabovcik won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics, representing his native Czechoslovakia, and was a two-time European champion thereafter. He retired from competition in 1986, and began coaching. In 1993, he moved to the United States to coach, and in 1995 settled in Salt Lake City, where he still makes his home.

“I was still doing a lot of shows, and most of the work was in the United States,’’ Sabovcik said. ‘I met my wife in Sun Valley, and we just decided to come and stay in Salt Lake City, where she was going to train a bit. We just never left.”

Sabovcik had already made a big move, leaving his home country in 1987 when it was still a communist country. He did not defect; he did everything legally, allowing him the opportunity to go back if he wanted.

“But who would have known it would change like it has,’’ Sabovcik said. “Now we are a part of the European Union. But I did everything legally because I did not want to not be able to come back home. My family is still in Czechoslovakia.

“My desire to move out of the country had to all do with skating,’’ he said. “I wanted to keep performing, and if I had stayed I would not have had that opportunity under the current political situation. A few years later, everything changed.”

When Sabovcik was done skating himself, he knew the coaching opportunities were plentiful in the United States. He spent some time in Canada, where he supplemented his income working in a record store, before coming to the States.

High-level skating causes young people to travel a great deal, and so the move to the United States was just another stage of life for Sabovcik (“I’m pretty adaptable,’’ he said.) But he said there were professional difficulties that cropped up because of his move to the U.S.

“As a coach, you just can’t walk into an ice rink and say ‘Here I am’,’’ Sabovcik said. “It was a very gradual situation. All of my income was coming from skating. People were asking me to coach, and I had a hard time finding for myself to skate.”

As it took Nicks almost half a century to decide to become an American citizen, Sabovcik has not yet applied for citizenship in the U.S.

“Both of my first two sons were born in Canada, but my little guy, Jozef, was born here,’’ Sabovcik said. “We have our green cards, but I think this year, I’m going to get a citizenship.’

Unlike the other coaches, Alex Ouriashev came to the United States in June of 1994 because he was in love.
That relationship didn’t work out. Neither did his first business relationship in the United States. But when he got back into skating, things started to turn around for him.

At the age of 36, Ouriashev left his native Ukraine, where he had been a two-time Ukrainian Senior Men’s Champion, and competed internationally. He spent 17 years skating in ice shows in the Soviet Union and around the world.

But he was drawn to the United States, even though he spoke no English, and when he got to his new home in Chicago, he had no opportunities as a skater. So he worked in an unofficial partnership with a friend from Kiev who owned a bakery in Logan  Square.

“I had no clue as a baker,’’ Ouriashev said. “All my life had been around figure skating. But I cooked, I made bread, I made cherry cakes. I lived in Logan Square, but I really lived in the bakery.”

“I didn’t think I would be a coach,’’ he said. “I didn’t even bring skates with me.”

Unfortunately, his friend from the Ukraine ended up squandering their pooled money. Luckily, upon his arrival in the States, Ouriashev took the Yellow Pages book and sent out a resume to all of the ice rinks he could find listed in the Chicago area, trying to find work as a skating coach. After sending out the paperwork, he quickly forgot that he had even made that attempt as he tried to make his way in the New World in a job that was losing money fast.

“Then, one day, there was a Mexican guy in the bakery who could speak better English than me,’’ Ouriashev said. “He told me someone was calling me from an ice rink and they want to interview me. So I met with the owner of the Glenview Ice Arena, and he told me I could teach classes.

“I was very lucky,’’ he said. “I had a lot of people help me with the immigration stuff. I had a lot of coaches helped me, and I appreciate what people did for me. At that time, I had no one else.”

So Ouriashev started teaching classes, and in a few months he had his own full-time students. Five years ago, he began working with current U.S. National champion Gracie Gold (although the relationship ended in mid 2013).

Ouriashev said he was immediately struck by the good fortune he had to be convinced to come to the United States, even when the circumstances of his moving here did not work out immediately. He wasted no time getting his American citizenship, which he completed in 2002.

“This is my American dream come true,’’ he said. “ I could not have been a successful coach back home. Becoming a successful coach was only possible in the United States. No place else could give me this type of opportunity.

“Things are more fair for people in the United States,’’ he said. “It is a more honest country. It is a country for the people. If you will work hard, and really want to reach some goals, sooner or later you will do that.”

Ouriashev has a nine-year-old son, Nicolai, who is a hockey player, not a figure skater. “He is crazy about hockey,’’ Ouriashev said. “He is driving me crazy about it.

“But, even though he doesn’t speak any Russian, I am so happy he is here and nowhere else, for his future will be good here.”

Shpilband’s decision to stay in the United States permanently was not entirely his decision.

“That is the correct way to say it,’’ Shpilband said. “There were a bunch of incidents put together."

In 1990, Shpilband was skating on tour through the United States with several fellow Russians, as well as Americans like Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean when one of his teammates decided to defect, and then another. That decision forced Shpilband to make a decision of his own.

“They asked me for help, to help them carry their luggage to the train station so they could go to a safe p lace,’’ Shpilband said. “I was spotted by another crew member from the show helping them. I was in a very difficult situation. To go back to Russia, it was the Soviet Union then, because I was accused of helping the people who defected, that was a bad spot to be.

“We couldn’t not help our friends,’’ he said. “Then, because we were helping our friends, we got ourselves in trouble. Defecting from the Soviet Union at that time was a bad spot. That made my decision to stay.”

So the Russian skaters, five of them, moved into a one bedroom apartment in New York and tried to determine their next move.
“We weren’t in hiding,’’ he said. “We were young and we didn’t know much. When you are young, you do things without thinking about it.

“But I never felt I had made a wrong decision,’’ he said. “I never felt regret for anything. We did not know what our futures held for us, but we were young and ready for anything. I did not know if I was going to be teaching, or involved with skating in any way.”

Luckily, someone from the Detroit Skating Club was aware of the situation and offered Shpilband a job coaching in the Midwest. He did not have a lot of time to think about his life decision because he was trying to get through his new life.

“The language was the big issue,’’ Shpilband said. “I could not speak any English when I defected. But right from the first day, I was impressed with how friendly people were and how many people were willing to help and try to understand my broken English. I had a lot of support from day One.”

In 2000, Shpilband became an American citizen.

“That was an easy decision to make,’’ Shpilband said “It felt very natural after living in the country for 10 years.  It actually took longer for me to get my green card because when I applied for immigration, I learned that my original paperwork was lost. Lost or taken away, I never found the truth. But I got my green card five years after I applied for political asylum.”

Shpilband went on to coach world ice-dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and American world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

“I was very lucky to end up in a very good skating club with a lot of very good people around me,’’  Shpilband said. “I had great skaters who trusted me enough to let me teach them.”