by Anne Calder | Photos by KissnCry Pics & courtesy of the team
Grace Vainik & Yegor Barshak represent the Georgian Figure Skating Federation. The new ice dance team trains in Novi, Michigan. Two weeks ago, they competed at the ISU Junior Grand Prix in Riga, Latvia. After a successful sixth place international debut, the team was assigned to a second JGP in Poland October 5-8.
Vainik and Barshak were born two years and 5,000 miles apart – Gracie in Franklin, Michigan and Yegor in Poltava, Ukraine. They will both celebrate birthdays in December. She will be 18, and he will be 20.
Vainik has two older brothers and two dogs, a Golden Retriever and Cockapoo. Her family skated together on weekends during the Public Skate at the Southfield Ice Arena in Michigan.
“I loved it so much, I kept asking my mom for skating lessons,” Vainik said. “She enrolled me in “Learn To Skate” when I was 10 years old.”
Vainik quickly finished all the program levels and began taking private freestyle, pattern and partnered ice dance lessons.
Yegor Barshak, who has duel Ukrainian and Georgian citizenship, has one older brother. His mother is a violin teacher and his father works as a building engineer.
“My family is all in Ukraine,” Barshak said. “I was happy I got to see my mom in Riga, Latvia. I had not seen her in 2.5 years due to Covid and the war breaking out. I haven’t seen my father or brother in the same time because they are not allowed to leave the country due to the war.”
Barshak started skating at the age of six doing amateur sports. When he was twelve he moved to Kharkiv to train because there was only a small rink near his house.
While later living and training in Kiev, he represented Israel at the 2018 JGPs in Austria and Lithuania with his former partner, an Israeli citizen. When the team split, he traveled on to Russia to train.
Vainik also trained in several cities prior to her current Novi location. After learning the basics at the Detroit Skating Club, she moved to Canton, Michigan to concentrate on ice dance with Marina Zoueva, Oleg Epstein and their team.
In January 2019, Zoueva relocated her International Skating Academy to Florida. Vainik and new Ukrainian partner, who had arrived in Canton for a try-out just prior to the reorganization, also moved to the Sunshine State. The new team trained at the Hertz Arena in Estero for six months prior to ending its partnership.
In August, Vainik went back to Michigan and began training with Igor Shpilband and his team. She reconnected with one of her first dance coaches, Natalia Deller, who had moved from the DSC to Novi.
Due to Covid-19, rinks were closed and competitions canceled beginning in March 2020. The first USFS on-site event was the 2021 US Nationals held in Las Vegas. Vainik and her U.S. partner competed in an empty rink with only cardboard faces. After finishing tenth, the team parted in January.
Vainik continued skating at the Novi Ice Arena for almost a year and a half.
Meanwhile, Barshak was still training in Russia when the war broke out in February 2022. The Georgian Federation helped to set him up at an ice rink in Latvia where he stayed until June when he went to Novi for a tryout with Vainik.
The head of the Georgian Federation had contacted Igor Shpilband about Vainik. Once they received her videos, the Federation voted its approval for a tryout.
“I really had not seen any videos of Yehor, but my coach told me to just let him come,” Vainik said. “It’s just a tryout, so let’s just see how it goes.”
“I knew from the moment we first held hands and skated our first lap around the rink there was instant chemistry, and I knew this was going to be my partner. It just felt so natural. There is something so different about skating with Yehor.”
“I like that he is open to new ideas and always tries his best. He is also a very hard worker. We get along well and despite the language barrier we also communicate very well, which is very important to both of us, so he is studying English.”
“Our partnership began interestingly,” Barshak said. “First I have a problem with English. Second it is a different world for me. Thanks to Gracie and her family, it is much easier for me to adjust to living in America.”
Like all new partnerships, there were challenges.
“I think our biggest adjustment was learning to skate together as a team,” Vainik said. “My last partner was exceptionally tall and powerful, and Yehor is smaller and shorter. We had to learn to skate together very quickly.”
In mid-August, the team won the bronze medal at the Onyx Challenge.
“We received some very positive feedback from the judges, who could not believe we had only been skating together for a month and a half.,” Vainik said. “They said we had something special. This encouraged us to work even harder.”
“We didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare for the international stage, but Yehor had previously competed for Israel in 2018. He was able to provide some helpful tips as he knew how international competitions were run.
The team discussed skating their Rhythm and Free Dances.
“I like skating the Argentine tango because I feel like it is one of the sharper dances, and I can show a little more intensity in my emotion,” Vainik said. “It is a very difficult dance. When you achieve those key points with the right edges it feels so rewarding especially because we spend so much time working on it.”
Barshak also noted, “Argentine tango is a complex dance, a lot of nuance, a lot of emotion, a lot of work, but in the end it turns out to be a beautiful dance. I’ve gone through quite a few dances, and Argentine tango is one of my favorite patterns.”
“Our Free Dance song, “To Build a Home” is about how life is short, and you want to spend and enjoy every moment with the people around you,” Vainik said. “Throughout the program we are enjoying every moment together and sharing our special moments with everyone else. Our coach Pasquale Camerlengo selected it and said that he thought of this song each time he saw us skate together.”
“I love that we feel this music, that we tell the story and have interaction,” added Barshak. “We feel confident with the music.”
As the team prepared for its second JGP event, Vainik & Barshak took time to reflect on their first international experience together in Riga, Latvia.
“At our debut in Latvia after only skating together for two and half months, I was nervous at first, but happy and excited at the same time,” Vainik said. “We had worked really hard in the short time we had been together, and I was really excited to show off our programs to everyone.”
“It was an indescribable feeling [at Riga],” Barshak remembered. “We were a little excited before the competition, but as soon as we entered the first practice, everything fell into place, very calmly, restrained as in training in Novi.”
Performing at her first International Junior Grand Prix in Riga is actually Vainik’s best ever skating memory.
“We ended up finishing sixth overall which was such a huge accomplishment since our programs were just finished a few weeks before the event,” Vainik said. “I felt like it had all come together and our hard work had paid off. It was such an amazing experience. A few years ago I never imagined getting to this point in my skating career.”
With two competitions – one domestic and one international – under its collective belt, the team reviewed how they hoped to improve the programs and presentation for the next event.
“We changed a bit of our free dance and are hoping it leaves more of a powerful and meaningful impact for the ending,” Vainik explained.
“We also made a few mistakes that we learned from and have worked really hard on correcting so we hope to have an even stronger performance in Poland. We have also improved the details of the RD,” added Barshak.
The young Ukrainian/Georgian shared his thoughts on living and training in the United State
“The biggest adjustment is learning the English language. I’m also adjusting to the culture and the food.”
“I love skating with Gracie. She’s always open to trying new things, and is the hardest working skater I’ve ever met in my life. She complements me. She’s also a very kind and honest person and always is so respectful to me and everyone.”
“She also has a lot of patience, which sometimes is much needed especially with the language barrier. She challenges me and makes me a better skater and person. “
“Gracie and I share the same skating goals, and we will work as hard as we need to and do whatever it takes to achieve them. For this season, the goal is to go to 2023 Junior Worlds. Our long-term goal is to participate at the Olympics in 2026 and if not, then in 2030.”
Ice dancing brought this team together. In their own words each expressed why the discipline is so special for them…
Gracie Vainik: “I like the beauty and grace of Ice Dance. It’s theatrical and can make you laugh and cry all at the same time. I now love the expression part of ice dance. I’ve been working really hard on it as I was always too shy to show expression before. It comes much more natural to me now.”
Yegor Barshak: Ice dancing is so special because it is a relationship between partners. It is not only a technique, it is an emotion – a history of dance, and we pass it on to the judges and the audience.”