By BARRY WILNER
2014-02-12 11:42 PM
SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen have their own little United Nations of figure skating.
The coaches at the Detroit Skating Club have journeyed to the Sochi Olympics with students from three countries. Consider the challenges that presents in language, cultural differences and finding time for all their skaters.
"There are many," Sato says of the obstacles they had to hurdle to get their skaters qualified for the games. "The language barrier can be difficult, although it has not been too much a problem. We have skaters from Japan, Italy and the U.S. here, and they have many things to get used to in Detroit."
Even their top American skater, national champion Jeremy Abbott, had some major adjustments after moving from another coach in Colorado -- Abbott is from Aspen -- to the Motor City.
"I miss the sunshine of Colorado," he says with a smile.
While Abbott is their main pupil, Sato and Dungjen also have Italy's Valentina Marchei in women's singles and Japan's Marumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara in pairs. Dungjen works separately with Italian pair Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek.
Their reputation as coaches has grown to the point that skaters from several other countries seek them out. That Abbott, already a national champ under renowned coach Tom Zakrajsek, would leave to join Sato's stable in the 2009-2010 season says something.
"I needed a change of direction and a fresh perspective on my career," Abbott said, "and I found it with Yuka."
Sato, the 1994 world champion for Japan, faced a dilemma on Tuesday when her Japanese pair competed in the short program while Abbott was scheduled to practice in the training rink. Such conflicts are not uncommon.
Then again, not many coaches can claim two singles skaters and two pairs on Olympic rosters -- although many coaches work with skaters from more than one country.
It helps, of course, that Sato is fluent in English and Japanese, and that Marchei and Takahashi speak English. She says Kihara has had more of an adjustment with language, and with other necessities.
"You have to be able to drive in Detroit," Sato says. "He had to remember to drive on the other side (from Japan). And he has to learn to drive in snow."
"We get a bit of snow in Michigan," Dungjen adds with a laugh.
None of their skaters was a medals threat heading into the Olympics, but simply having their students experience what Sato and Dungjen did was a thrill. Sato skated in the 1992 and 1994 games, while Dungjen competed in pairs in 1994 and 1998.
When their students make the podium, both coaches not only feel satisfaction, but pride.
"I am always an American first," Dungjen says. "I was born and raised in the U.S. and I represented the U.S. in two Olympics. In my heart, I always am an American.
"If I hear the anthems of my students at a competition, it has special meaning. I think about the journey we took together. I am just as proud to hear it for them."
Sato vividly remembers winning worlds at home and having the Japanese anthem played for her accomplishment.
"No matter what I am doing, I come to peace when I hear it," she says. "But when I wear my USA jacket, I am also really proud that I can share in that. And when we hear the anthems for our (skaters), I feel the same way."