Russian skating coach's year includes Bobrova's failed drug test, fallout from downed jet

Figure Skating - ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Ice Dance Short Dance - Boston, Massachusetts, United States - 30/03/16 - Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen of Denmark compete. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (REUTERS)

BOSTON - Russian coach Alexander Zhulin still hopes that lawyers can sort out the fate of his star ice dancing team, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, forced to miss the world figure skating championships this week.

Bobrova tested positive for meldonium in January, after she and her partner finished third at the European Championships. So far, 123 athletes, most of them Eastern Europeans, have tested positive for the drug, which the World Anti-Doping Agency placed on its banned list on Jan. 1.

Bobrova is the only figure skater with a positive test for the drug, used primarily to treat heart conditions. A December 2015 clinical trial published in the Drug Testing and Analysis journal argues that the drug helps improve endurance performance of athletes, and aids rehabilitation after exercise.

The drug is manufactured primarily by Grindeks of Latvia and sold to about 13 Eastern European countries as medication to prevent the death of ischemic cells and not to increase the performance of regular cells, the company says. There are debates about whether the preparation is actually an athletic performance-enhancer.

Bobrova has said in the Russian media that she knew of the doping ban and said she stopped taking it in November. She did not request a test for the B sample because she believed that only traces would be found and an argument could be made that the drug stayed longer in the system than previously believed. Zhulin said he thought the drug lingered in the body for six to 12 days.   

But the test showed a large amount of the drug in Bobrova’s system at the end of January.

“I’m really hoping that this medication is something that is [not considered performance-enhancing],” Zhulin said Wednesday at TD Gardens. “This preparation is like nothing. It is not doping.”

He said he wonders if Bobrova took the drug unknowingly. At the European championships, Bobrova and Soloviev were not using their regular team doctor.

“Ekaterina is a sober and wise woman,” he said. “She would never have done this in her life.

“The worst thing is that the guys worked so hard,” he said. “So many hours of work.”

They were 2013 European champions and helped the Russians win the world team medal at the Sochi Olympics. Then Soloviev developed a groin injury and a knee injury that necessitated surgery. They lost all of last season and had just returned at Skate Canada in Lethbridge, Alta., last October.

Bobrova is 26 years old and Soloviev, 27. If they are banned for one or two years, Zhulin isn’t certain they will be back.

“It’s very unfortunate,” said Zhulin, who skated with Maia Usova to win the 1993 world title.

Zhulin says Bobrova and Soloviev are still skating, hoping that “they all make the right decision on this.”

This season has been the worst in Zhulin’s storied career. He also lost the Turkish team of Alisa Agafonova and Alper Ucar, as part of the fallout after Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian plane they say strayed into their air space in November. Since December, Agafonova and Ucar have been training in Detroit alongside Canadian champions Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation between our two countries,” said Ucar on Wednesday. “We love both of our countries. But we needed to take a decision for our career. “

Agafonova said a new regulation was enforced that gave the team the rights to stay in Russia to train, but if they ever left the country they could not return.

“There is no sport visa for Russia,” Ucer said. “So every three months we had to move back to Ankara and then return back. We cannot continue our practice with our coach in this situation.”

Zhulin said another member of his teams injured a knee ligament and required surgery. So have another three of his teams. “So for me, it’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I hope I’m strong. I hope everything is better next year.”