January 24, 2010 in Sports

Golden partners move to forefront

White, Davis top Agosto, Belbin for ice dancing championship
By The Spokesman-Review
 
CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON photo

Charlie White carries partner Meryl Davis as they glide backward Saturday during their gold-medal performance at the Arena.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

They ascended the mountain that is United States ice dancing. Now Meryl Davis and Charlie White will take on the world.

Davis and White unseated the couple that has dominated American ice dance figure skating the past decade for the first time head-to-head Saturday as they captured the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships before a spirited crowd of 8,090 at the Spokane Arena.

Skating to the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack, Davis and White pulled away in the free dance to finish with 222.29 points, nearly four ahead of 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (218.51).

And in 18 days, Davis and White hope to prove to the rest of the world that they’re medal contenders at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Just as convincing as the gold medalists, who swept their friendly rivals in the three dance disciplines, were Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, who finished with 190.69 to top Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre (186.42) for third.

Davis and White defended their national title, but the first one was considered a little hollow considering Belbin and Agosto had to withdraw because of injury. Their absence at the finals last year snapped a string of five straight championships.

So the second national title was certainly sweeter.

“I think it’s a testament to our training and everything that we’ve put into skating in our 13 years,” said White, 22, who, with Davis, 23, are the longest-tenured U.S. ice dancing team. “To come out at nationals and beat such an amazing team with the credentials that they have, it’s huge for us, especially going into the Olympics. We’re going to take that and run with it.”

Davis and White were docked one point because Davis spent about one-half second too long in the air. It didn’t matter.

Their rousing free dance prompted applause eight times, ending with a crescendo as the audience leapt to its feet at the end.

Perhaps the most athletic move of all the ice dancers came when Davis rode atop White’s shoulders across the middle of the ice facing the opposite direction as White skated backward. The choreography seemed to pull the most reaction from the crowd.

“It was impeccable, it was amazing,” Davis said of the performance.

One of their coaches, Igor Shpilband, has been around U.S. ice dancing the past two decades, including a stint as coach for Belbin and Agosto. He was overwhelmed by his newest stars.

“I thought it was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was clearly the best U.S. nationals I remember and I’ve been at nationals for 20 years. Winning the gold medal here, it’s the biggest thing they’ve done so far.”

Belbin and Agosto also received a warm ovation at the end, but their skate – although impressive in style – lacked the knockout punch that Davis and White possessed.

Belbin choked back tears expressing her appreciation for the crowd’s response.

“It’s so humbling,” she said. “It’s the most incredible feeling you could ever have. We haven’t had one of those in a long time.”

“It’s even more special, because we felt like we wanted to give ourselves a standing ovation just because we were able to achieve what we wanted to,” Agosto said.

Belbin and Agosto had hinted that this was going to be their last season together. The hint gave way to reality on Saturday.

“I really feel like we’ve had so much time to grow in this sport and we’ve really given our whole lives to it, dedicating everything,” Agosto said. “There’s still a lot out there that we’d like to experience.”

They leave the sport in capable hands – not just those of White and Davis.

Samuelson and Bates are tickled to be headed to the Olympics. Bates explained that the Olympics weren’t even in their minds the last four years.

“We progressed maybe quicker than we thought we might have,” Bates said. “For us, we haven’t been involved in any of the media summits or a whole lot of interviews. The Olympics is sort of an abstract word that means a lot to a lot of people, but to us it’s just something that we’ve been talking about with friends and family. But now that the dream has been realized, hopefully, it’s cliché to say you’re speechless, but it’s hard to think of the right adjectives to use.”

Bates made the comment before the three Olympic berths were officially announced. Officials decided to wait until after the Senior Ladies concluded in the evening before making the announcement.

It was the final national for Navarro and Bommentre. They were emotional during their comments to the media.

“We’re going to look back on that and say that we left everything out there,” Bommentre said of their final skate.

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