PHOENIX — She was a former U.S. ice dancing champion who had begun a new career as a choreographer after becoming disillusioned with competition. He was a former world junior champion from Russia with an intense desire to resume competition after beginning a new life in the United States. But he had no partner and not much knowledge of English.
A perfect match?
Jirina Ribbens thought so. A former Belgian figure skater who works for Dick Button in New York and speaks several languages, among them Russian, she persuaded Gorsha Sur of Moscow to contact Renee Roca of Colorado Springs, Colo., less than a month after he had defected from the Soviet Union in January of 1990.
Three years later, the odd coupling of Roca and Sur has sparked renewed interest in U.S. ice dancing, which in recent years has been not so interesting, and produced an element of unpredictability in the often predictable competition that will begin tonight in the America West Arena at the national figure skating championships.
"I'm sure there will be people for us and people against us and others who are waiting to see," Roca said. "I don't know how the nine people on the judging panel are going to feel. I'd like to ask them, 'What in the world are you going to do with us?' "
Judges at Rockford, Ill., in December's Midwestern sectionals, the final qualifying competition for the national championships, gave Roca, 29, and Sur, 25, remarkably high scores, including one perfect 6.0, a rarity at that level because most established skaters are waived through the sectionals. Roca and Sur had to advance through all of the qualifications because they were considered a new team by the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.
Roca had no inkling of how her life was about to change when she read in a newspaper three years ago that four skaters and an administrator from an ice skating show on tour in the United States, "Torvill & Dean and the Russian All-Stars," had defected while in New York.
She recognized Sur's name, saw no mention of his longtime partner and gave it little more thought until she returned home one evening and heard this message in broken English on her answering machine: "I am interested to know if you look for partner."
Although Sur spoke little English, it was a little more than the other defectors spoke. As a result, he had been appointed as the liaison for interested parties, including the FBI, Jewish immigrant groups and contacts within the figure skating community, who would help them escape.
In a recent interview, he recalled being whisked away from his New York hotel room by the FBI at 3 o'clock one morning, taken to New Jersey and held there until the Russians who had remained with the tour were in the sky above John F. Kennedy Airport on their way to Moscow.
"It was like detective story," he said.
Sur, who was 22 when he defected, said that among the reasons he was unhappy in the Soviet Union was his lack of control over his career. He and his partner, Svetlana Liapina, had been world junior champions, but they soon became merely another team in a country rich in exceptional ice dancers. Forced to either retire or join a grueling, low-paying show, they turned professional. But he was not satisfied.
When he told Ribbens after defecting that he wanted to compete again, she recommended that he call Roca.
"Of all the U.S. ice dancers, Renee's style is the most European," Ribbens said. "She has a classically elegant and dramatic flair, more like a ballerina than a ballroom dancer."
Hearing the message from Sur on her answering machine, Roca's initial response was that she was not interested in a partner.
With Donald Adair, she had won the national championship in 1986 and finished second twice. But only 10 days before the 1987 World Championships, he retired. She returned with a new partner, James Yorke, in 1988, but they were not polished, finishing fourth in the nationals and missing a berth on the Olympic team.
"When Donald quit. it was such a blow," she said. "We were on the verge of making the Olympic team, and then, just like that, it was like the rug had been pulled out from under me."
Sur's call came while Roca was pursuing her new career as a choreographer. While he was being escorted by the FBI between New York and New Jersey in January of 1990, she was working at the national championships at Salt Lake City, Utah, with Jill Trenary, who won the women's individual title there and then went on two months later to win the world title.
But Roca was intrigued enough to agree to work with Sur for two weeks at Detroit, where a figure skating club had adopted the Russian defectors. Then, after returning to Colorado Springs, she heard that organizers of the Brian Boitano-Katarina Witt tour wanted her and Sur to audition for former ice dancer Michael Siebert.
"We had no program, no material and had worked together for only 14 days," she said. "I flew back to Detroit, skated with Gorsha for 10 minutes, and Michael said, 'OK, it looks good to me.' "