I always enjoy watching the Olympics, both summer and winter. Sure, they’re a bit over the top, not to mention exorbitantly expensive to host these days. And the Olympics have seen their share of tragedy too, both human and political. But did you know that there’s a long history of first and second generation immigrant athletes representing the United States on Team USA? (Did you also know that some former Olympic champions were previously in the United States unlawfully?) The U.S. Skating Team is especially influenced by immigrant athletes and coaches. For example:
- Simon Shnapir, who came to the United States from Russia, will be representing the United States in Sochi in pairs skating with his partner, Marissa Castelli.
- Marina Zueva, previously a Russian ice dancer, retired in the late 1970’s to become a choreographer. She moved to the United States in 1991 and has worked with many elite skaters including current members of Team USA.
- Oleg Epstein, Marina Zueva’s former partner, is also an immigrant from Russia. He has choreographed Gracie Gold and ice dancers Davis and White and is currently a coach and choreographer for siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani.
- Although the “Shib Sibs,” as the Shibutanis are commonly known, are first generation Americans, their mother is an immigrant from Japan who met their father when they were both studying music at Harvard.
- Rafael Arutyunyan, born in Soviet Georgia, competed as a skater for the USSR early in his career. After immigrating to the United States, he has coached many successful U.S. skaters including Michelle Kwan. He is currently one of Ashley Wagner’s coaches.
- Igor Shpilband, a former ice dancer for the USSR, defected to the United States in 1964. He is both the coach and choreographer for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates.
- Finally, Yakuto Sato, a former Japanese figure skater who placed seventh at the 1992 Winter Olympics and fifth at the 1994 Winter Olympics, is, interestingly enough (considering where the Olympics are being held) the only foreign-born Team USA skating coach without a Russian background. She currently works as a coach and choreographer at the Detroit Skating Club, where she coaches Olympic hopeful Jeremy Abbott.
Considering the Olympics are being held in Sochi, Russia, I suppose it’s a bit ironic that all but one of the individuals noted above is of Russian descent. Nevertheless, it does not mean we support our Team USA any less. We wish them all great success.