March 2010 | Home
Forty years ago, U-M students prepared the way for the first Earth Day teach-in. Here's how a casual talk at a bar on Washington Street spurred the modern environmental movement.
Four U-M students competed as ice dancers in the Olympics. Two of them won silver; the others will be favorites in 2014. But until then, they'll just be trying to pass their next exams.
A musical version of solar wind melds science and art...and helps researchers discern hidden data about the sun. Plus video.
A quick guide to film technique - and why knowing it can make movies even more enjoyable.
In English, few synonyms mean exactly the same thing. These fine distinctions mean more fun for word lovers.
An online magazine for alumni and friends of U-M.
The Olympians next door
March 10, 2010
At the Vancouver Olympics, three pairs of American ice dancers finished in the top eleven.
That's an impressive achievement in a sport long dominated by Europeans and especially Russians, whose various teams have won all but two gold medals since the Olympics adopted the sport in 1976. Even better for the U.S., Charlie White and Meryl Davis took the silver, and Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto just missed out on the bronze, finishing a very respectable fourth.
White and Davis, two Michigan students, are getting the attention that comes with a silver medal. Shortly after the World Championships in Turin this month, they'll be touring with a professional company, then decide whether to prepare for the 2014 Olympics. (Read the Michigan Daily's profile of White and Davis.) Belbin and Agosto announced their retirement from Olympic competition in Vancouver, and will also be touring.
But the third American duo, Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, also Michigan students, are so young, at 19 and 21, they are all but certain to compete for a medal themselves in 2014.
The future is bright, indeed.
But, back in Ann Arbor, they face a bigger challenge: Getting to class by 8 a.m. every morning, and taking tests alongside classmates who don't spend seven hours a day skating, running and lifting to get ready for the next international competition.
"I never feel well enough prepared for a test," Samuelson says. "You go to a competition, and you say to yourself, 'I've done this a hundred million times.' But when you go into an exam…"
"Everyone has studied more than you have," Bates says, finishing her sentence.
But unlike being at the Olympics, where everyone knows who they are, once Bates and Samuelson are back in the classroom, no one bothers them, because no one knows them. They are in the odd position of being internationally acclaimed, and locally anonymous.
That, however, will likely be changing soon.
The accidental skater
Samuelson was drawn to the sport at an early age, as many young girls are, but Bates was a harder sell. He grew up playing hockey at Yost, but his mom, Nancy, had her ways.
"Mom, I don't want to do this," he'd say. To which she replied, "Okay, we'll do it!"
"I was trying to quit for a long time," Evan recalls. "But she'd just say, 'Sure, as soon as you outgrow your skates, you can quit.' Then I'd learn some new trick, and I'd want to keep going. You're naturally attracted to anything you're good at."
The duo started skating together when they were just ten and eleven, and success was almost instant. But to get to the national level, their parents knew, they would need serious coaching.
Enter Evan's aunt, Susan Fortino, an immigration attorney in Chicago. When Russian ice dancing coaches Yasa Netchaeva and Yuri Chesnichenko hired Fortino, she made them a deal: "If you agree to coach my nephew and his partner, we're even."
When they accepted, the skating duo was on its way.
"Some skaters, you say the same thing ten times, and nothing changes," Netchaeva says. "But they have the ability to absorb what we're teaching, and do it, right away. They listen!"
"They're really the only coaches we've had," Samuelson says. "They push us every single day."
"I cannot hear that song again—ever," says Samuelson of the music they heard 12,000 times in practice.
Because ice dancing's rules strictly prohibit the kinds of jumps pairs skating requires—which can be all-or-nothing maneuvers—in some ways ice dancers feel more pressure because every little movement becomes essential to a team's success, not just the jumps.
"In pairs, there are times you skate by yourself," Bates explains, "so you can take it easy here and there. In ice dancing, you can't do that. You're always two inches away from each other. If I relax, I'm going to throw Emily off, and then we're in trouble fast."
When pairs perform their jumps, they know they're potentially dangerous, and they're prepared for it. But when ice dancers wipe out, it's completely unexpected. At the 2007 Junior World Championships, the duo was poised to grab the gold when Emily hit the ice, Evan stepped on her right hand, and sliced the tendon to her middle finger. It made for an interesting cast, with her middle finger stuck in the air for several weeks, but they learned the lesson: without complete concentration at all times, anything can happen.
That's easier said than done when you practice the same three-minute routine for seven hours a day, six days a week, nine months straight. That means hearing the same song 50 times a day, every day. For their Olympic short program, for example, they skated to a medley of Dixie Chicks' songs, which they heard some 12,000 times before they performed in Vancouver.
"I cannot hear that song again—ever," the normally easy-going Samuelson insists. "If I do, I'll start thinking about our routine, not the lyrics."
Their coaches also insist they practice the way they play—right down to Bates's cowboy hat, which he wore every time they rehearsed that routine.
Given the dedication the sport requires, it's no surprise Samuelson regards the Ann Arbor Ice Cube as "our second home."
"I've known Evan's mom before he was born," says Diane Wilson, who manages the rink where the pair has always trained. "She said, 'I think you see Evan more than I do.' It's probably true."
Fifty members of Evan Bates's extended family have gone to Michigan, which might be some sort of record. But to become the fifty-first, Evan had to explain to his academic advisor that, thanks to his skating schedule, he could only take classes at eight or nine in the morning, or after five at night—times most students do everything they can to avoid.
"I don't think this school is for you," the advisor said, and suggested Bates defer his admission. Undeterred, Bates found classes to fit his schedule, including a statistics lecture that met from six to nine on Monday nights. "After a long day on the ice," he says, "that's the worst thing ever."
They both take two classes a semester, but still have to miss two or three weeks each term to travel to national and international competitions. They feel they're at a competitive disadvantage in the classroom, but it still presents a welcome relief from the pressures of the rink.
"The two worlds are pretty much unrelated," Samuelson says. "If something didn't work that day, you have to forget about it and think about your paper, your new friends, all the usual stuff students think about."
It helps that almost none of their classmates have the slightest idea who they are, or what they do, until a classmate asks them why they're out of class so often.
"I'm a figure skater," they say.
"Do you compete for Michigan?"
"No, the United States."
Like virtually all other undergrads, however, the highlight of their week is the football games. Saturday is their only day off each week—even during the summer—and both have season tickets. "I get all decked out in maize," Samuelson says, "I sit in the student section, and cheer on the team with everyone else, so no one knows who you are—and it's great."
Still, being an Olympian has its perks. Before they left for Vancouver, head football coach Rich Rodriguez signed their Maize Rage towel, which their friends flashed a few times for millions of viewers.
"Now that was cool," Bates says.
The skating pair will likely experience a few more moments like that leading up to 2014. Because they're not backing off their skating or school work, they're scheduled to graduate before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where the pair is pushing not merely to compete, but to medal.
"We thought we'd get there, but not this soon," Bates says. "Twenty-five to 30 are an ice dancer's prime years, but this came a lot quicker than that.
"You couldn't have expected this."