With war at home in Ukraine, Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia persevere and embrace skating for the U.S.
Editor’s Note: Five days after the first publication of this story, Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia announced they withdrew from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships due to an injury Smirnova sustained that will keep them from training until the middle of February. Smirnova and Siianytsia, who rank third among U.S. pairs by best total score this season, plan to petition for one of three pairs’ spots on the team for March’s world championships.
There are thousands of threads in the tapestry of a life, with the sturdy and neutral monochrome warp threads covered by multiple colors of fine weft threads to create a scene that can pull together a moment in time or an enduring image.
Events can conspire to make the whole thing start to unravel, too, turning a settled and pleasant view into an unnervingly jarring one, and seemingly stable lives into ones full of uncertainty. That’s what has happened to the lives of U.S. pair skaters Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia.
In the weft of their tapestry, the azure blue and golden yellow threads of Ukraine’s flag combine with the coral red, bright white and navy blue threads of the United States. The colors illustrate the past, present and future of a team who left their native Dnipro, Ukraine two years apart to build sporting lives 5,200 miles away in suburban Minneapolis, where they train with coach Trudy Oltmanns.
Their move involved expected cultural and linguistic dislocation and separation from families, difficult but surmountable obstacles in an ever-more-connected world. None threatened the integrity and strength of either the warp or weft of their story.
“We had no problem adapting,” Siianytsia said in a recent Zoom interview, his English now fluent.
Then came last Feb. 24, when Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began a war that has lasted nearly a year, tearing apart the fabrics of millions of lives.
A World Away
Dnipro, a city of nearly one million inhabitants in east-central Ukraine, had been largely spared the war’s horror until Saturday, when a Russian missile devastated most of a civilian apartment block and killed more than 40 people. The missile destroyed some six dozen apartments and also blew out windows in nearby residential buildings, displacing many other people.
Via text message, Oltmanns said the families of both Smirnova and Siianytsia were safe.
“I feel really bad waking up and seeing the news like that, that the places where you were hanging out with your friends as a young kid are being destroyed and also I feel really sad for the people that were impacted by that explosion,” Siianytsia said in a Sunday text message forwarded by the coach.
Both Smirnova, 18, and Siianytsia, 22, last saw members of their families in person after the World Junior Figure Skating Championships nine months ago in Estonia. Smirnova’s mother was able to get from a refugee camp in Poland to Estonia. Siianytsia saw his mother and sister, now 5 years old, at a refugee camp in Poland, where they spent three months immediately following the Russian invasion. Their mothers eventually returned to Ukraine to be with their husbands, who under the country’s wartime martial law can’t leave in case they are called to fight.
Siianytsia’s mother, stepfather, sister and stepbrother and Smirnova’s mother, stepfather and stepsister all have been back for several months in Dnipro, which has become home to more than 100,000 refugees from besieged far eastern Ukraine. Danger sirens have sounded in Dnipro more than 1,000 times in the past 11 months, but nearly all have fortunately not been followed by an attack.
“As a male who could serve (in the military), I felt guilty I had left,” Siianytsia said. “We both talked to therapists.”
He talks with his family at least once a day, she multiple times. Both their stepfathers serve in a local defense group that Siianytsia likened to a neighborhood watch.
“I read pro-Ukrainian news only, to go with the positive instead of the negative,” he said. “That helps a little.”
A Serendipitous Pairing
Throughout all this, when healthy they have kept training and competing in figure skating’s most fraught discipline, one in which a small lapse in concentration or misstep can lead to an alarming fall, especially when the man is lifting the woman well above his head. Such a fall on a lift at a show last May left Smirnova with a concussion, compromising the beginning of this season, their first full season as senior-level competitors.
It was one of several physical misfortunes for a pair who began skating together in 2018, following an initial tryout on the gym floor at Smirnova’s Dnipro high school. Yet they would have been medal contenders at the U.S. Championships in San Jose, Calif.
How Siianytsia connected first -- or at all -- with Oltmanns seems rather remarkable, given that he had skated with little distinction in Ukraine.
“I’ve been wondering about that question, too,” he said, with a wry smile.
His name turned up on a partner search site, figure skating’s version of a dating app, a venue where the women usually greatly outnumber the men. Siianytsia’s mother was friends with the mother of a skater Oltmanns had helped prepare for shows, and his mother encouraged him to move to the U.S. because his competitive career was stalled in Ukraine. A reference from the friend was enough for the coach to invite him to Minnesota. He has lived in her house since arriving in the summer of 2016.
“When I picked him up at the airport, he was 15 years old and weighed about 90 pounds. I just hoped he had a return ticket,” Oltmanns said with a laugh.
At that point, Oltmanns said, Siianytsia could not land a single Axel. By 2018, bigger and stronger, he had mastered all the triple jumps while competing two seasons in intermediate and novice level singles. It was then that he and Oltmanns began looking for a pairs partner, and Siianytsia saw Smirnova’s name on the partner search site. The two had skated on the same rink in Dnipro, but their four-year age difference meant they had little more than a passing acquaintance.
Smirnova, who goes by Nastyia, had been skating pairs for Ukraine with Artem Darenskyi, winning the 2017 national junior title and competing on the ISU Junior Grand Prix circuit the next season. After that partnership ended, she too was searching and got in touch with Siianytsia. When he returned to Dnipro in May 2018 to take his high school graduation exams (he had been doing schooling online) and visit his family, they arranged the tryout, which Oltmanns watched via FaceTime.
“I told him, `I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but you’re there, so do the tryout,’’’ Oltmanns said. “All I could tell for sure is she was a good height for him.”
That FaceTime was enough for her to invite Smirnova, who initially also lived with the coach but now shares an apartment with another skater. To help the pair master English -- they both grew up with Russian-speaking parents -- the coach insisted they speak nothing but English from wakeup until 6 p.m. each day. Smirnova also has finished Ukrainian high school online.
During the 45-minute Zoom interview, he was voluble, she more withdrawn. That, the coach said, is the reverse of how they act in person.
A Long Road
Their nascent partnership has survived three years of one thing after another: Covid restrictions; her ankle injury the night before the short program at 2021 nationals, when they won the junior title with purposely watered-down programs; withdrawing from what was to have been their senior national debut at 2022 nationals when both contracted Covid; his Covid infection lingering for weeks before morphing into bronchitis and flu; and then the Russian invasion, which briefly stripped them of all desire to train.
They had earned a place on the U.S team for the 2022 junior world championships based on past results. Despite his illness and their flagging motivation, they did not withdraw because there was no one qualified to take their place. After months of discouragement and seeming acceptance of the idea their season was over, Siianytsia said he wanted to go to worlds, and U.S. Figure Skating signed off on the idea.
“There were three reasons I wanted to go,” he said. “One was I could do it even with very little training. Second, my partner would get to see her mom, and I would get to see my family. Third was I wanted to help the federation. We got (more) spots for the next kids coming up.”
As the only U.S. team at the event, where only 10 pairs competed, they got a second spot for the federation just by finishing. But they did better, taking fourth place.
And then Smirnova sustained a concussion, keeping her from training consistently for several weeks. They began the 2022-23 season in early October with a struggling seventh at a Challenger Series event in Finland. No sooner had they returned to Minnesota than Siianytsia hurt his groin, forcing them to withdraw from what was to have been their senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America.
Oltmanns said they were unable to put together two solid weeks of training until November, three weeks before making their Grand Prix debut in Finland, where they finished a respectable fourth.
They followed that by winning the Golden Spin of Zagreb, another Challenger Series event, in early December, with personal-best scores for the free skate and total.
“We were much more nervous for Finland (the Grand Prix) than Zagreb. We were more mentally ready there,” Smirnova said.
“Winning was a boost going into nationals, especially since the short program wasn’t (as good as) we wanted, and the free skate also had a few minor mistakes,” Siianytsia said. “It showed us what scores we could get if we skate clean. Knowing we have almost twice as much time to prepare for nationals, it gave us extra confidence.”
Standing with Smirnova atop the awards podium in Croatia, two skaters from one land wearing the competitive colors of another, Siianytsia felt the achievement could resonate in both places, even if he had not been good enough as a young skater to compete for Ukraine.
“We felt so proud, knowing athletes in Ukraine or in the USA are looking up to you,” he said. “Maybe they wanted to be like you, the way I looked at the German Olympic couple (2018 gold medalists Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot). She was Ukrainian, he was French, and they were just doing what we all are: figure skating, performing, enjoying the sport itself, no matter what flag you are representing.”
He and Smirnova both have green cards – yet another thread color for the current iteration of their tapestry -- and should become U.S. citizens in time to be eligible for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
“‘I feel emotional ties to Ukraine, my heritage and my family, but I only have ever felt as an athlete that I represent and am a part of the U.S. team,” Siianytsia said.
They can be yellow and blue in the soul, red, white and blue on the ice, weaving the threads of their lives into a compelling narrative.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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