January 21, 2010 in Sports

Partners Agosto-Belbin still burn with competitive fire

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Veteran ice dancing partners Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin have renewed vigor after overcoming Agosto’s back injury.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Competition schedule

DayTimeEvent
Today10:30 a.m.Senior compulsory dance
Today3:45 p.m.Junior free dance
Today7:30 p.m.Senior Ladies short program
Friday10 a.m.Junior Ladies free skate
Friday6 p.m.Senior original dance
Saturday11:40 a.m.Senior free dance
Saturday4 p.m. Senior Ladies free skate
Sunday12:30 p.m.Smuckers’ Skating Spectacular

Today’s TV: Passport to Gold at noon and 8 p.m. on SWX

There’s nothing more dangerous than a hungry predator, which doesn’t really seem to fit with the image of Ice Dancing.

But Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto certainly appear ravenous to reclaim their spot in skating hierarchy.

Even that is unusual.

The 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Arena are the 10th nationals for the exquisite couple, and until last year they never finished lower than second.

They could obviously be forgiven if their competitive edge was dulled in their bid to capture a record sixth straight Senior Dance title, but it was a back injury to Agosto that ended their reign because they had to withdraw.

With worldwide accomplishments too numerous to mention, including a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics, that could have been the time to call it a career. Some observers thought the Belbin-Agosto Show was growing old and maybe it was.

“I don’t think our skating ability was getting stale or our programs were getting stale,” Belbin, 25, said. “In fact, the 2008 (world championship) free program was one of our best ever. I think it was just the mentality. We had just reached a point where we weren’t getting excited enough about training every day, we weren’t driven as much as we used to be. It was more to do with our own mental approach to skating, reinvigorating ourselves to keep going toward our goal.”

They returned to finish second in the 2009 World Championships and their competitive fires were stoked.

“What happened last year was really helpful, actually,” Agosto, 28, said after practice for the competition that begins this morning. “It made us mentally overcome a challenge and really commit a hundred percent that this is what we want to do.

“There could have easily been a point where we just said, ‘You know what, we’re not going to do it. We’ve had a good run, we’re not going to deal with it any more.’ To be able to come and skate as well as we did at Worlds was very rewarding.”

When it was time to ramp up this season, they had to pull out of the Grand Prix finals because Belbin had an impacted wisdom tooth.

In their absence, good friends Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the 2009 national title and every other title under the sun, including the Grand Prix Finals, a first for American dancers.

All of that has given this competition renewed meaning for Belbin and Agosto, not only because they could be considered underdogs.

“It definitely feels good to be back at nationals,” Belbin said. “It is our favorite competition of the year. It means a lot. It’s a battle this year. Not that it was easy any other year, but it is certainly going to be a very intense, exciting competition. We’re thrilled to be a part of it and one of the front-runners.

“I definitely prefer to be overwhelming favorites. But it is what it is. I also want the sport to progress. But it’s really, really exciting.”

There is no holding back for the Olympics, only a month away, even though they should be a lock to be among the three couples who will make the U.S. team.

“This is the best practice we can have,” Agosto said. “It’s an intense competition, high level. Everybody has to do everything at the right time. This is what we need to work on. It’s going to be a great practice leading up to Vancouver.”

They are also acutely aware of the battle for third, likely between Emily Samuelson-Evan Bates, Junior champions in Spokane in 2007 and runners-up last year; consecutive bronze medalists and friends Kim Navarro-Brent Bommentre; and 2009 Junior champions Madison Chock-Greg Zuerlein.

“There is a lot of focus being put on ourselves and Meryl and Charlie for the battle for gold, but in truth the battle for third place is going to be heated, really intense,” Belbin said. “There is going to be a lot of emotion.”

“The judges have a hard job this year, it’s very difficult,” Agosto said. “Everybody is so good, but everybody has different strengths, different weaknesses, different styles. It’s going to come down to who can keep it together. That’s really what it comes down to, you have to do it when the pressure’s on. It’s going to be exciting to see.”

Novice dance

Alexandra Aldridge, 15, and Daniel Eaton, 15, of the Detroit Skating Club, captured the Novice Dance championship Wednesday with 112.22 points.

In a tight battle for the silver medal, the sister-brother couple, Danvi, 11, and Vu Pham, 12, of Silver Springs, Md., edged Joyln Yang, 14, and Luc Baker, 16, of the Seattle Skating Club 110.65 to 110.06.

Junior dance

Maia and Alex Shibutan, runners-up a year ago, maintained their lead in Junior Danceafter the orginal dance program.

Skating to a Japanese folk medley, the brother-sister couple, 18 and 15, respectively, scored 56.17 points. They were more than five points clear of Piper Gilles, 17, and Zachary Donohue, 18, who performed to a Flamenco medley by the Gypsy Queens and Kings.

The Shibutans, who won the Novice title inSpokane in 2007,also led after Tuesday’s complusory dance, when all couples skated to the Argentine Tango. Gilles and Donohue were fourth after the first dance.

Rachel Tibbetts, 18, and Collin Brubaker, 20, who were second in the compulsory dance, were third in the orginal dance after scoring 49.24 points skating to the Tennessee Waltz.

The Shibutanshave a combined score of 91.89, with Tibbetts and Brubaker at 83. Gilles and Donohue are at 81.22.


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