SALT LAKE CITY -- The oddest couple forms America's best hopes in the suddenly spotlighted ice dancing competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Naomi Lang of Allegan, Mich., will become the first woman of Native American descent to participate in the Winter Olympics when her competition begins Friday with the compulsory dance. She'll be only the second Native American to participate in any Olympics.
Her partner, Peter Tchernyshev, is from St. Petersburg, Russia, and has just recently gained American citizenship. He has lived in America since 1992. The two began competing together in 1996-97.
The blending has worked.
Lang and Tchernyshev have now won four straight United States ice dancing championships and earned four 6.0 grades (the highest possible) at the 2002 U.S. championships.
"It's like a marriage on ice," Lang says. "Actually, I think it is harder sometimes to deal with a person you spend so much time with."
Lang comes by her heritage on her father's side. Her Indian name is "Maneetahan," meaning "Morning Star." She is a member of the Karuk tribe of California.
Tchernyshev's background gives him an interesting perspective on the hottest issue at the Olympics, whether the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Peltier should have won the pairs gold medal.
"I talked with my parents (in Russia) right after the event," he said during a news conference Wednesday. "They liked the Canadian skating pairs routine probably the best. But they didn't express their opinion on how the judging went."
"Being an ice dancer, I know both of the pairs teams very well," Lang said. "It's tough for me to talk about the situation.
"The pair from Canada are very sweet people. I've always enjoyed being around them."
Ice dancing, which has been fraught with judges' discrepancies and bloc voting in the past, will be under the microscope now. One of the allegations running rampant is there may have been a deal (or at least a pressured agreement) between a Russian ice dancing judge and a French pairs judge. France has one of the favored teams in ice dancing.
"This controversy will not compromise the outcome of the ice dancing event," Tchernyshev said. "I believe the judges will remember the oath they took in the Opening Ceremony. I am confident they will do the right thing. Ice dancing will be judged fairly."
Ice dancing consists of three phases, compulsory, original dance and free dance. The ice dancing technical committee has recently set new regulations for judging that is supposed to make it easier to compare the complex elements of the various dances against each other.
The judges have viewed practice sessions of all the skaters to get a better idea of presentation and how to gauge what will be coming.
"I think it's good for judges to come to practice so they can compare each couple and our different elements," Lang said. "It makes it more fair.
"And we are out to skate for the crowd and no one else."
The team will compete Friday, Sunday and Monday.
"Just to be here has been such a wonderful experience so far, to be in the Olympic Village," she said. "I enjoy every moment and taking it all in. We are now going to go out and wow the crowd as much as we can."
(David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics).
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