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Ahead of Sochi, former Russian Olympians become US citizens

In the twilight hours of the Iron Curtain, Lorisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov sailed across the ice at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, taking home bronze medals
Russian Figure skater family citizenship - Michelle Richinick - 08/17/2013
Oleg Makarov and Lorisa Selezneva, and their daughter Ksenia Makarova, celebrate their new-found U.S. citizenship in New York.

In the twilight hours of the Iron Curtain, Lorisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov sailed across the ice at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, taking home bronze medals for the Soviet Union. Four years later, they placed second in the World Championships for pair figure skating. In lightening blue costumes, the couple exemplified the magic and precision of the Soviet school of skating.

They married, and as a crumbling Berlin Wall gave way to freedoms, the Makarovs fled west, settling in New York and raising a family. Their daughter, Ksenia Makarova, now 20, also became a top-ranked figure skater. But, lacking American citizenship, she competed for Team Russia in Vancouver in 2010.

On Friday, six months before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, two generations of the Makarov family switched sides for good. In a Manhattan federal hall, they swore an oath to the United States of America and became U.S. citizens.

For the Makarovs, the full embrace of citizenship comes as their adopted homeland is locked in tensions with their country of birth. Politics — and human rights — threaten the success of the games, much as they did during the darkest days of the Cold War era when Lorisa and Oleg came of age as world-class athletes.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama canceled a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama was frustrated that Putin had granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, a former CIA officer and fugitive wanted for leaking highly classified materials from the National Security Agency where he worked as a contractor. A recent crackdown on gay and lesbian individuals in Russia has only heightened tensions ahead of the Olympics, with Obama calling a spate of anti-gay laws anathema to human rights.

The Makarovs are hoping for middle ground. In the burst of excitement that followed a moving swearing-in ceremony, the eldest Makarov didn’t want politics to interfere with the Olympics, lest it rob athletes who prepare for years to qualify and compete in the games.

"It's a sport, not politics; sport is sport," he said in an interview, his first as a naturalized American. "We don’t think about this [issue] because we prepare our athletes for competition. Politics is not for us."

Makarov and his wife began skating together in the Soviet Union when they were 14. They won bronze medals in pairs skating at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Makarov's injured knee and mistake during their routine placed them in fourth during the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada.

"I agree with my parents that sport is sport and anybody should be able to compete," Makarova told msnbc. "It's about being an athlete." But Makarova, who has always felt American, has few illusions. She formerly skated with co-Olympian Johnny Weir, a gay athlete whose husband is the son of Russian immigrants. Weir, who will most likely skate for Team USA in Sochi, recently told msnbc that being gay in Russia has always been difficult, but he will not be deterred and is willing to accept the possibility of arrest in Sochi.

The Makarovs moved from Saint Petersburg, Russia, to New York in 2001 to pursue jobs as skating coaches. They train national skaters at the Ice Time Sports Complex in Newburgh, N.Y., where they currently live. The couple also has a 12-year-old son who was born in the United States. He is a competitive swimmer — who has participated in the Junior Olympics — and hopes to qualify someday for the Olympic Games.

Makarova was nine years old when her family immigrated to America. She grew up in New York and traveled the world for competitions. But she represented Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. (Athletes must be citizens of a country in order to represent it during the Olympics.)

Makarova will not compete in Sochi because she is recovering from a skating-related injury in her hip. Instead, the family plans to watch the Sochi Games on television.

Makarova feels an allegiance to both countries, she said.

"We were born in Russia and will always stay loyal to Russia, but we're loyal to the United States now," said Makarova, who is also the 2010 Russian National Champion. "We have the best of both worlds.”

To become a citizen, individuals must be green-card holders and at least 18 years old, reside in the United States as lawful permanent residents for at least five years, and have been physically present in the country for at least 30 months. They must be recognized as people of good moral character, have knowledge of U.S. government and history, and be able to speak, read, write, and understand the English language. The final step is to take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony.

On Friday morning, 151 other people joined the Makarovs as citizens, hailing from 58 countries, including Ireland, Morocco, Nicaragua, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela, and Yemen.

More than 500,000 individuals have been naturalized so far this year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). About 763,500 people became U.S. citizens during 2012.

Makarova said she hopes to pursue a career as a detective or FBI agent, paths that require citizenship. Her parents, who long ago settled in New York, also decided to take the oath. She is currently dating an American who plays hockey.

"I'm really happy," Makarova said with her naturalization certificate close by. "I feel like a different person."