Photos by Robin Ritoss
Sometimes you must go back to go forward.
Isabella Tobias & Ilya Tkachenko skated together briefly in 2008.
“When we tried out that summer, and he decided he wanted to skate with me, it was a dream come true,” Tobias said.
Potential citizenship issues caused the team to go their separate ways after only six months.
“That January, Ilyaʼs coach decided it would be in Ilyaʼs best interest to skate with a partner that had Russian citizenship,” Tobias said. “At the time it was absolutely devastating to me, and I was sad about it for a long time. Looking back on it now, with all of my citizenship struggles, I can understand where his coach was coming from.”
Two years later, Tobias teamed up with Deividas Stagniunas, a four-time Lithuanian national champion with a competitive international resume. Stagniunas had been paired with American Katherine Copely, but the two had parted ways in 2010 after an injury led Copely to retirement.
Copely had applied for Lithuanian citizenship after the team had earned a spot at the 2010 Olympic Games, but her request was denied and the spot went unfilled.
Tobias applied for Lithuanian citizenship in October 2012. After being interviewed by the Citizenship Commission and passing the Lithuanian language test, she was denied citizenship
by Dalia Grybauskaite, the President of Lithuania, in January 2013. Despite this off-ice setback, Tobias and Stagniunas finished 15th at the 2013 World Championships, earning Lithuania an ice dance spot at the 2014 Olympic Games.
That fall, Tobias read an article that stated that the first alternate to the Olympic Games would likely have an opportunity to compete, since Tobias would not receive her Lithuanian citizenship.
“I remember calling my parents before the free dance at Skate America, hysterical, asking them what the point was, that everyone was counting us out,” Tobias said. “I canʼt even describe it, the feeling that I had no control over my own destiny, over a spot at the Olympics that Deividas and I had proven we deserved.”
At the last minute, Grybauskaite had a change of heart and granted Tobiasʼ citizenship request in December 2013.
“I thought at first someone was pulling a mean prank on me when the messages started pouring in that I had gotten my citizenship,” Tobias said. “From that point on, Deividas and I were just so grateful, we kind of floated on air for the rest of the season.”
Despite her struggles with the citizenship process, Tobias remains philosophical.
“More and more partnerships are becoming of mixed nationality, out of necessity,” Tobias said. “I hope, eventually, that the Olympic rules adjust to accommodate this growing trend. Plus, I really do think that two people from two totally different parts of the globe coming together and forming a team is very symbolic of what the Olympic Games represent—global unity.”
Tobias & Stagniunas finished 17th at their Olympic debut, but Tobias left Sochi with so much more.
“My Olympic experience is something I will be grateful for the rest of my life,” Tobias said. “Competition-wise, I was not focused on results or pressure or anything like that, I just wanted to soak in and live every moment to the fullest. The Olympics, to me, are about much more than results.”
Two weeks after the World Championships, where they finished 15th, Tobias & Stagniunas met with coach Igor Shpilband. Stagniunas announced his plans to retire due to injuries.
“I spent the next week searching my soul, trying to decide if I felt I had closure with the dream I had followed my whole life,” Tobias said. “I ultimately decided that I would like to continue on through the next Olympic cycle, but wasnʼt sure there were any partners available to make that possible.”
Re-enter Ilya Tkachenko, whose partnership with Ekaterina Riazanova had also ended.
“I have always thought that Ilya is one of the most talented male ice dancers in the world, and he was the first person that came to mind when thinking of prospective people to skate with,” Tobias said. “Igor and I made a total leap of faith by calling him.”
“I was done skating with Katya. I was thinking about what to do, keep skating or start coaching,” Tkachenko said. “I did choreography for pairs skaters in my hometown, and then I went on vacation to Egypt. Igor called me the first day there. I knew that Isabella is very talented skater and Igor is my favorite coach, so I said yes, and right after Egypt, I flew to Detroit.”
“The fact that Ilya came out of retirement to skate with me is something that makes me believe in myself more and more every day,” Tobias added. “I am very lucky.”
Because they switched countries, Tobias & Tkachenko had to sit out last season. With one year of training already completed, they are eager to make their competitive debut. Although they have not yet decided which competition it will be, they hope to debut this summer.
Their short dance will be set to Disneyʼs “Cinderella,” weaving music from both the most recent release (2015) and the original classic, while their free dance is to “Polovtsian Dances” from the opera “Prince Igor.”
“Ilyaʼs character is Prince Igor, while I portray a Polovtsian slave,” Tobias said. “Ilya thought of the short and I thought of the free. We always joke that we are shocked that our own Prince Igor (Shpilband) did not think of our free dance himself.”
The team will represent Israel, which came as a surprise to some. Tobias has represented Lithuania for the past four seasons, while Tkachenko has represented Russia throughout his entire career.
“I am of Jewish heritage on both sides of my family; Israel is my ancient homeland,” Tobias said. “I can think of no greater honor than representing the one and only Jewish state, a country so brave and with such soul.”
“Itʼs a new step in my life,” Tkachenko added. “Iʼm glad that I have a chance to start everything from the beginning. Iʼll do my best representing Israel.”
Though a coincidental sequence of events brought them back to each other and a new partnership six years later, they are both appreciative of their past partnerships and what the future holds for them as a team going forward.
“I always say, everything happens for a reason in life, and I cherish the years I skated with Deividas,” Tobias said.
“Without that mistake of stopping skating with Isabella I would probably never have met my wife, but Iʼm happy that life gave a chance to correct that mistake,” Tkachenko added.
Tobias & Tkachenko will make their debut as a team at the Lake Placid Ice Dance International next week.