By Pritha Sarkar
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - When Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir struck gold at the Vancouver Olympics, their Russian coach Marina Zoueva was spotted gleefully slipping into a Maple Leaf team jacket as she hailed the success of her Canadian pupils.
Four years later, Zoueva returns to her homeland ready to spoil the Russian party at the Sochi Games.
In 2010, Zoueva was instrumental in helping Virtue and Moir perfect their haunting free dance to Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which captivated a nation and sealed the duo a place in Canada's Olympic annals.
While Canada toasted its first ice dance champions, for Zoueva it was a double celebration as she enjoyed a 1-2 finish with American silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, also graduates of her skating school.
In the four years since Vancouver, Zoueva has enjoyed unprecedented success as the two North American couples have hot-footed their way to the top two prizes at every major event they have contested.
The 57-year-old's achievements are remarkable considering that during her competitive days in the 1970s, her movements around the ice failed to set pulses racing. But what she lacked as a competitor she has more than made up as a coach.
In the ice dancing world, she has no equal and is known as the coach with the Midas touch.
It is why Virtue and Moir and Davis and White are willing to stick with her despite their intense rivalry on the ice.
While both couples are always eager to point out that their coach does not play favorites, the one thing Zoueva cannot do is cut herself in half or be in two places at the same time.
Last month, with the U.S. and Canadian nationals held over the same days, Zoueva chose to accompany Davis and White - who have won 11 successive titles and are unbeaten in 22 months - to Boston.
While having Zoueva as a coach has done wonders for both teams, Moir admitted that sharing a trainer with your closest rivals can be a double-edged sword.
"Having the same coach ... is both (an advantage and a disadvantage)," Moir told Reuters in an interview.
"It can be frustrating at times for Tessa and I. When you are putting absolutely everything into your career, it's hard not to second-guess that maybe she (Marina) doesn't want to expose one of our strengths (to the Americans) because it's their weakness, and so on."
In an Olympic year, not having your coach at the national championships must have come as a bitter blow to Virtue and Moir, but they were quick to point out that the gains far outweigh the losses of their unique arrangement.
"We have a great relationship with Marina and that's evolved over 10 years. We have to put our trust and faith in her. We know she's going to do everything she can to put us in the best position to win," added Moir.
The duo could have jumped ship a couple of seasons ago when Zoueva ended her coaching partnership with Igor Shpilband.
But for both sets of ice dancers, the decision to stay with Zoueva was straightforward.
"We really feel like Marina is the perfect coach for us in any situation. Even having her coach our rivals, we trust that she knows exactly what we need to be our best," twice world champion White told Reuters.
"We need a coach who can highlight and choreograph the moments what make us look great. It has little to do with who our competitors are.
"Scott and Tessa have very different strengths and styles of skating. Just her ability to bring out the best in both of us is a real tribute to her genius but has also allowed both of us to do our own thing artistically."
Davis added: "We have been training with them for a long time and certainly recognize the advantages of training alongside such a talented team. We really feel like they helped push us and we feel like we helped push them and in turn pushed the sport of ice dancing."
As North America waits to discover which side of the International Boundary the ice dance gold medal will go to on February 17, the only thing certain is that Zoueva will be celebrating.
What is unknown, however, is whether she will be donning a Stars and Stripes jacket or one emblazoned with the Maple Leaf.
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Stephen Wood)