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Catching up With Naomi Lang

 by Alexandra Stevenson

(17 December 2013)

Not Heard from Naomi Lang lately? That’s possibly because the five-time U.S. Ice Dance champion (1999-2003), who turns 34 on December 18, is almost always working and often abroad in places like Russia. Having given birth to her third child on August 15, (a daughter Madelyn Christina), she was hired with partner Peter Tchernyshev, who became an American citizen in 2001, to appear with a Russian show, “Opera on Ice”, in October. She and Peter won two Four Continents championships (2000 & 2002) and medaled three other times. They also competed in the 2002 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

After her Archilles Tendon injury in 2004 forced them to withdraw from nationals, Lang & Tchernyshev turned professional and they have been kept busy ever since appearing in TV specials and touring shows like “The Ice Age”, “Art on Ice”, and “Kings on Ice”, which starred Evgeni Plushenko, and others.

Tchernyshev is the grandson of Pytor Chernyshev, who was the Soviet singles figure skating champion 1937-41 and, then, after the war, bronze medalist 1946-49.

Lang recently told a St. Petersburg magazine, “I’ve been to this beautiful city many times. My first was in 2000, when Peter and I were competing in the Grand Prix Final. It’s by far my favorite city in Russia. I love the gorgeous museums and theatres. This was my first time performing in “Opera on Ice” and I didn’t know what to expect. We literally rushed from the airport to the ice theatre doing our make-up in the cab and didn’t have time to rehearse.

“Now, however, I am thrilled! Dancing to live opera is a great experience. I had never heard of it being done before. The singers in the show made me fall in love with their pure and emotional tones. There was so much energy in the stadium, from the skaters and performers combined. It was an amazing feeling that I will never forget and hope to repeat.

“I would say that Russia has become my second home over the years. Peter and I have performed in dozens of shows all over the country. Right after the Winter Olympics in Torino (2006), we were touring the country in a bus performing with Evgeny Plushenko and Edvin Marton in all possible cities and rinks, so I got a very good impression of the place. It definitely has its good and “tough” sides.

“The tough side involved touring in a bus on Russian roads. Generally, getting around turned out to be challenging. Then, there is the harsh weather. But, I really enjoy Russian hospitality; everyone has always been helpful and very friendly towards me. Russia has a harsh appearance but there is a soft side underneath.

“My first dance trainers were former Soviet ice-dancer Igor Shpilband and British ice-dancer Elizabeth Coates. Up until early 2013, Igor was training the top two couples in the world, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir from Canada, the Olympic champions, and the current world champions Meryl Davis &Charlie White.

“Later, I also worked with Alexander Zhulin, Tatiana Tarasova, and Nikolai Morozov – many of whom permanently reside in the United States. The Russian teaching style and sports traditions are somewhat different than those in America. Russian coaches generally seem to demand more. I would say they are tougher than their American colleagues and are extremely goal-oriented. It must have something to do with the Soviet past in general and the importance of sports when athletes had such incentives to be rewarded with apartments in return for their victories. However, I have no reason to complain. In the end you come out better trained and stronger.”

Russians are fascinated by how she came to represent the U.S. with a Russian, and particularly by her heritage as a Native American Indian.

“At first I trained as a ballerina and a dancer performing with the Interlochen Arts Academy and Grand Rapids Ballet Company in Michigan. At eight-years-old, I saw the Ice Capades, and was entranced. I began skating and switched to ice dance at 16. I began competing in ice dance with John Lee, and we won the 1995 U.S. Novice title and the 1996 U.S. Junior silver medal.”

At that point, in mid-1996, Peter, having noticed her at U.S. Nationals, decided to write her a letter asking for a tryout. Their summer meeting in Lake Placid was a success. “We had a great tryout and we’ve been partners since then.” They initially trained in Lake Placid for nine months with Natalia Dubova.

Then, due to Lang's homesickness, they moved to the Detroit area and began training with Igor Shpilband, who had represented the old Soviet Union, winning the 1983 World Junior championship. In an unplanned development of being in the same place as others who wanted to defect, Shpilband got caught up in their plan and found himself in the U.S. permanently. Fortunately, not long afterwards, communism and the Soviet Union collapsed and he was no longer cut off from his family.

Lang explains, “I remain the first and only Native American woman to participate in an Olympic Games to this day.” She is a member of the Karuk tribe by her father’s inheritance. “Being the only Native American in ice dancing, definitely left an imprint on my life. For instance, during the Vancouver Olympics (in 2010) I skated in full Native American attire atop Grouse Mountain while it was snowing. Currently, I am planning to establish a fund for Native American kids to promote ice dancing among them and find new talents. I also try to embrace my Native American heritage by passing it on to my kids.

“During Olympic years (when the interest in figure skating and ice dance peeks), I travel an average of five months out of the year and am very happy when I can spend time with my family. I love outdoor activities and always try to do something fun. Luckily my family has always been very supportive of my job – starting with my Mom who gave up a lot just to put me through ballet school. I am very grateful to all of them for their support.”

She was asked the difference between Russia and the U.S.

She decided, “Maybe uncertainty and spontaneity. For instance, sometimes we would receive last-minute invitations to shows in Europe and would need to pack up and leave very abruptly. I guess over the years I got used to this trait and now feel more comfortable. I understand about half of what people say in Russian, which is great, since in the beginning I was struggling to understand some of my coaches, even in English due to their heavy accents!”

She was asked about her relationship with Peter. “Our relationship would probably resemble that of a married couple – there have been ups and downs, but we got through them successfully. Peter is definitely the creative brain in our couple; he is a genius athlete and very hard working.” They were 5th in their first U.S. championship, then won the bronze, and then dominated ice dance in America for five years. But he is not her romantic partner. He lives in Moscow; she lives in Gilbert, AZ.

After an unfortunate relationship turned sour, Lang married Mark Fitzgerald, a former international ice dancer for the US. They had a boy, Mason Daniel, on November 14, 2009, and the recent Madelyn. She had her first child, Lillia Ashley, in 2004.

Fitzgerald teaches at the Polar Ice in Gilbert, as does Lang, which is about 22 minutes drive (19 miles) from Phoenix. Lang contends, “You can pretty much connect to anywhere from Phoenix. Mark’s parents and sister are based there so there’s a support group for the children that I can trust. We didn’t really plan for this to turn out this way, but it certainly makes life exciting.”

The now 42, 6’2” Tchernychev was married to another ice dancer, Natalia Annenko, and after that dissolved he married a well-known Russian actress, Anastasia Zavorotnyuk in 2008, and moved back to Moscow. But he is always traveling. He did choreography for the popular British duo, Sinead & John Kerr, for their 2010 season.

It was a work of love. Tchernychev said he was very aware that what he was making the brother and sister do, could have a significant effect on the place they earned at that Olympic Games. He said, “Probably I’m a perfectionist. Skating for so long made me that way. If you want to survive, to be competitive with the rest of the field, then you have to hold out for perfection. And I understand my responsibility for their routine was quite high.”

John Kerr gave him a lot of praise. “He be at the rink before us, messing around on the ice trying out ideas, and at the end of the day, we had to pry him off because we were exhausted.”

Lang knows exactly what John was talking about. “Now Peter and I don’t even spend a lot of time preparing new programs. After such a long time skating together, the choreography comes pretty fast. We know what’s in each other’s minds. Sometimes I need to pull back slightly when Peter’s creativity gets overwhelming but we always end up on good terms. Just like in any relationship, you need a lot of confidence and trust in your partner – especially when you are dancing on ice.

“Ice dancing does not leave a lot of room for improvisation. That could be very dangerous. Generally, ice dancing is considered the more “liberal” discipline of figure skating with its short dance and free dance programs. Sometimes, when the dance is over but the music continues, Peter and I would whisper something to each other or make a hand gesture to agree on what to do next but that’s the extent of our improvisation.

“Ice dancing in particular calls for a good musical ear; skaters must hear the beat and rhythm very well. I didn’t receive formal musical training but I have never had an issue with rhythm. However, I am teaching children now and see how important a musical education is.

“Ice dancing is definitely more popular in Europe than in the U.S., mainly because of its culture and history. Europeans have a much longer sports tradition and share a great appreciation of art, music and sport. The U.S. doesn’t really have the beautiful opera houses and the history that Europe has. However, I do think that certain kinds of ice shows would also be popular in the US — maybe, musicals on ice?”

She was asked if she had any connection with Russians when she was in her formative years.

“Not at all! I grew up in the town of Arcata in northern California, near Redwood National Forest. My father is a member of the Karuk Native American Tribe in California. I remember singing Native American songs and having traditional food such as smoked salmon from the local rivers or Indian fry bread that my father used to make. But I would have never – even in my wildest dreams – thought that I would become such a frequent visitor to Russia.

“I plan to continue ice dancing and appearing on different ice stages all over the world. The Olympic season is just about to start and Peter and I will most certainly be coming back to Russia.

“I really enjoy Russian hospitality; everyone has always been helpful and very friendly towards me. Russia has a harsh appearance but there is a soft side underneath.”

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