It was all supposed to be temporary.
When Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas teamed up in 1989, it was understood that they would compete for a couple of seasons and then move on with their respective lives. In 2019, the couple celebrated three decades on the ice – and their 19th wedding anniversary.
Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas hold a special place in Lithuanian skating history. The first skaters from that nation to ever compete at an Olympic Winter Games, decades later they remain the only ones to ever medal at a European or World Championships in any discipline.
Born in Moscow in the then Soviet Union, Drobiazko became interested in skating after watching a television program that featured 10-time World pairs champion Irina Rodnina. Drobiazko began skating singles as a 6-year-old, but at age 12 she switched to ice dance. Initially coached by Natalia Linichuk and then Natalia Dubova, Drobiazko found no success with her first partner, Oleg Granionov.
Vanagas grew up in a skating household in Kaunas, Lithuania. His mother, Lilija Vanagiene, was a 10-time national singles champion who went on to become the national coach and the president of the Lithuanian Figure Skating Federation. Vanagas won six national singles titles before being drafted into the Soviet Army at age 18. Offered the choice of becoming a soldier or skating, he opted to take up ice dancing.
He began training with Tatiana Tarasova. In 1989, she paired him with 16-year-old Drobiazko. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, the duo left Moscow and moved to Lithuania.
Drobiazko and Vanagas made their international debut at the 1992 European Championships. The possibility of competing at the Olympic Winter Games that year was the only reason Vanagas had continued to skate. “Lithuania had declared independence and the opportunity to compete for my home country at the Games was a big motivation for me,” he recalled.
They finished 17th at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, climbing to 12th two years later in Lillehammer, Norway. The following season (1994-1995) the team captured two silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit, but another four years would pass before they would repeat that result.
In the mid-1990s, Drobiazko and Vanagas spent two years in England working with British ice dance legends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They returned to Russia to train with Elena Tchaikovskaya, who guided them to an eighth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, in their third Olympic appearance.
Drobiazko and Vanagas finally found success during the 1999- 2000 season, winning Skate Canada and finishing third at NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final. They backed that up by capturing bronze medals at the European and World Championships. The government of Lithuania rewarded their achievements by bestowing the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas on them.
In their fourth Olympic appearance in Salt Lake City in 2002, Drobiazko and Vanagas finished fifth. They retired following the World Championships after a controversial fourth-place finish behind the Israeli team of Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovksi. The result caused an outrage, with fans, coaches and even some judges voicing their anger at the result.
The day after the free skate, Bulgarian ice dancer Albena Denkova submitted a petition to the ice dance referee, Courtney Jones of Great Britain, on behalf of herself and 38 other ice dance competitors, demanding the International Skating Union award the bronze medal to the Lithuanian team. Jones dismissed the petition. Though the finale of their career left a bitter taste, Drobiazko and Vanagas moved on and began touring the world on the professional show circuit.
Four years later, they returned to the competitive arena with one goal in mind: to claim an Olympic medal at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. The duo began their comeback by capturing bronze at the European Championships, which they hoped was an omen of things to come.
“We were surprised at Europeans that we were second after the compulsory dance,” Drobiazko recalled. “The last time, years earlier, we were fourth. We proved to everyone that nothing is impossible. I think we showed other skaters that if they have to take some time off for their health, they can still come back.”
However, the duo’s medal hopes were dashed with a disappointing seventh- place finish at their fifth and final Olympic appearance. “It was a terrible competition for us,” said Vanagas. “We didn’t skate our best, and it didn’t help that there was no Lithuanian judge on the panel. In practice, nobody was watching us. We felt disadvantaged from the start. It was a new system, but the same old politics.”
The first figure skaters to compete at five Olympics, Drobiazko and Vanagas left the competitive circuit following a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Championships. “I basically wanted to stop two years after the 1992 Olympic Games. Rita knew when we teamed up that it was supposed to be temporary — but we’re still skating together. So there is nothing steadier in this life than what is temporary,” Vanagas said with a smile.
Looking back on their long and distinguished career, Drobiazko and Vanagas recalled “many highlights and many special memories.”
“The happiest moments were obviously our first podium finishes at Europeans in Vienna and then Worlds in Nice,” said Drobiazko. “Also, of course, when we came back in 2006 and got a medal at the European Championships. To return was a serious decision for us. We didn’t know what to expect because the judging system had changed — everything had changed and nobody was really supporting us. We could have been 15th or 20th. We worked for half a year and we didn’t know what awaited us. We won medals so we didn’t return in vain. For Lithuania, that was big because we don’t know when Lithuania will again have skaters that will win medals.” “That was something special in our life, the medals we won and the programs we had,” Vanagas added. “The first memory that stands out for me is probably our first Olympic Games in 1992. I had a lot of patriotic feelings back then.”
Unlike many others, their transition to the professional ranks was not a difficult one. “It was a bit nerve-wracking when we first retired in 2002, as we didn’t know if we would get invited to shows or not,” Drobiazko explained. “But we were lucky because in the three years before our comeback, we had a lot of work. In 2006 we were not worried anymore that we would not get work. We knew that we would perform in shows again.”
Shortly after retiring, Drobiazko and Vanagas returned to the professional circuit in Europe and Japan, and performed on the Torvill and Dean farewell tour. Ilia Averbukh and his former ice dance partner, Irina Lobacheva, were strong rivals of the Lithuanians in their era, but once Averbukh started developing his television and show projects — which would ultimately take skating to another level in Russia — Drobiazko and Vanagas became an integral part of his shows and ice- musical tours. They also choreographed the programs for the participants in Averbukh’s television project “Ice Age. Children.” Both said they really enjoyed the experience.
Drobiazko, 48, and Vanagas, 49, who also produce their own skating show in Lithuania every year, never expected to still be skating 14 years after their final amateur outing and estimate they currently perform in about 150 shows annually. “We thought that we’ll skate for two or three years in shows after our competitive career and that’s it,” Drobiazko said with a laugh. “I also thought it would be hard to skate once you’re past 30, and then past 40 you won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. But thank God that didn’t happen. Also, we thought that people would forget us with time and we would not get invited to shows anymore, so we would just do our own show in Lithuania. But instead, there are more and more offers.”
In 2019, Drobiazko had the lead role in Averbukh’s “Carmen on Ice” and she and Vanagas also starred in his production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“You know, sometimes, when I’m home I think I’d like to do something else, but then I am offered another interesting role and I want to do it,” Drobiazko said. “We are very lucky that we get so many interesting offers. Sometimes I think, ‘I’ll do that show, and after that probably I won’t get any more interesting offers,’ but then another one comes up.”
“I like our show career more than our competitive career,” Vanagas added. “You can express yourself more and it is easier on the nerves. There is a better connection with the audience and for me it is more interesting to watch shows than competitions. When I watch a competition, I see that white light, the tension, the nerves everyone has, and I start to feel uncomfortable. I wish the atmosphere was more sympathetic so that it does not feel like some dreadful exam.”
Nonetheless, they still follow competitive skating and are interested in the current development of the sport. “On one hand, I don’t really like all the rules that there are now because I’m fed up watching all these same lifts, step sequences and twizzles,” Vanagas explained. “I’m longing for programs like those performed by Torvill and Dean, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko and Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay. Then I saw something new every year.”
Drobiazko agreed. “Now, if I see some- thing new, it is just one small thing and then I’ll see again these twizzles. However, there are couples like Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron … this is just something unearthly. In spite of all the rules, it is like they don’t care that they have to do these twizzles and step sequences. They are unique. Now, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov are up there with them, which makes me very happy because I really like this team. I was afraid that these rules would make everyone the same and there would not be any individuality anymore. Thank God, there are couples that are still pushing ice dance and have their own style even with these rules.”
Vanagas believes the new judging system brought more positives than negatives in ice dance. He feels that the programs have become more complex and that many new acrobatic lifts are being developed, though he is concerned about the health of ice dancers doing all the complicated elements. But he also feels that many teams do not have artistic programs because there are so many elements and transitions that need to be done. “The acting skills and the touching nature of the programs are mostly gone,” he said. “Only a few can keep that — the very best in the world that have the technical basis and skills.”
They know they cannot skate forever, but they are enjoying their extended career and have made no decision about when they will hang up their skates. “Why stop the car when it is driving? When a wheel comes off, we can then think about which service station to go to, or if we have to change the car,” said Vanagas with a wide smile.
“We’ve been skating for so long in shows that a lot of the things that I like to do have changed,” Drobiazko added. “I wanted to be an interior designer, then a designer of sports clothes. Then we thought about producing shows. Everything depends on our financial situation after we retire from show skating.”
Though they have no children Drobiazko and Vanagas have a lot of pets, most of which were adopted from the streets of Moscow. “Honestly, I’d just take care of homeless cats and dogs, if I didn’t have to earn money,” Drobiazko said with a laugh.
(Originally published in the IFS April 2020 issue)