Elena Ilinykh Has a New Partner

The good news: Elena Ilinykh isn’t retiring. The bad: her new partner isn’t very good.

For much of the summer, noone’s been very sure what’s been going on with Elena Ilinykh, one of Russia’s most loved ice dancers. She and partner Ruslan Zhiganshin had a disastrous season, and he is now pretty much confirmed as retired. Last week, as she was seen working with a newly formed team, the report was that she was considering moving on and into coaching. Maybe she even genuinely did, briefly.

Then this week, word was that she might instead be teaming up with Anton Shibnev, a skater about her age who has spent the past few years skating with first a former singles skater than a former pairs skater who were trying to transition into dance. An ambiguous Instagram post of the two of them with a much younger skater was followed by footage of the two of them skating together. It seems likely that at the very least, they’re having a trial run together.

The clip, short as it is, starkly exposes the painful part of all of this: he is not nearly at her level. Of course, they’re new to each other, which would explain some awkwardness, but his weaknesses are still very beyond doubt. And they’re old enough one can’t be sure of his ever getting better.

On the other hand, they’re also still young enough one can’t be sure he won’t, either. Certainly they won’t be anywhere near the race for the Russian Olympic team, or any other big event, next season. But the odds were against Ilinykh there no matter whom she teamed up with. And after this coming season, with Russia’s top team very possibly retiring (they had an interview themselves this week, where they established this), and the future of many other teams uncertain, the field likely gets a lot more open. Whether four years is enough time for Shibnev to get good enough for them to factor into the 2022 Olympic race is anyone’s guess.

Of course, if it is just a trial run, it might not last. But there’s a serious question of who else Ilinykh could skate with anyway, at least this upcoming season. Not too many top teams are going to break up before an Olympic season. Pickings are lean for poor Ilinykh, and she’s going to want to make this one work.

For now, it seems they may be skating to Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet for their free dance. A heavily overused piece of music, but for this season, it probably doesn’t matter much.

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