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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pairs title deserved this time

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto received perfect scores in their ice dance routine.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Armour Associated Press

PORTLAND — Here’s a nice change in U.S. pairs skating: Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash actually deserve the title they won.

The last two “champions” were by default, winning despite programs filled with spills and sprawls only because everyone else was worse. But Orscher and Lucash not only stayed upright Friday night in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, they displayed the grace, elegance and athleticism that pairs skating is supposed to have.

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won their second straight title in ice dance, getting 6.0s across the board for presentation. It was the first time any skater at nationals earned perfect marks from all nine judges.

Michelle Kwan and Brian Boitano had each gotten eight for artistry.

Skating to “Samson and Delilah,” Orscher and Lucash attacked every single element, determined to win their first title. Their throw triple flip was so strong, she hung suspended in the air as if a wire was pulling her from above. She traveled so far on their throw triple salchow she could have gotten frequent flier miles.

Their lifts were equally impressive, with good speed coming and going and intricate positions. On one, she did a hand stand on his knees, then bent her legs back over her head in a trick that some gymnasts wouldn’t dare — and they have a soft mat beneath them, not a sheet of solid ice.

Their only mistake was a minor one, as he two-footed the landing of their second side-by-side triple toe loop jumps.

When their music finished, she pumped her first and the two grabbed each other in a big hug. They looked out at the crowd wide-eyed, and clapped again when they saw their marks, 5.6 to 5.8 for technical ability and 5.7s and 5.8s for artistry.

As for the rest of the competition, let’s just say the Russians and Chinese won’t spend much time worrying about the Americans — again. John Baldwin and Rena Inoue, who won last year despite skating so poorly they’d thought they cost themselves a spot on the world team, had several small errors. He two-footed and under-rotated his side-by-side triple lutz, and she two-footed the throw triple salchow.

Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem stayed in third place despite struggling so badly she even fell when they were taking their post-program bows.

The pairs teams could take a lesson from Belbin and Agosto, who were the picture of perfection this week. The couple got a total of nine 6.0s for the week, double the career total of any other dance team.

When the string of 6.0s for presentation flashed across the board, Belbin’s mouth dropped open in a scream and she threw up her hands.

“It was a surprise in the compulsories and it was an even bigger surprise in the (original dance), but there is now way to describe what we saw tonight,” Belbin said. “It was totally unexpected. Skating the way we did was reward enough, but to see that we were able to connect with the judges on that level as well, it was indescribable.

“It’s definitely sad to see that system go because we’ll never see that again. It was a very special feeling. I hope that I never forget what that screen looked like when all those 6s came up.”

The International Skating Union has adopted a points-based marking system. U.S. Figure Skating plans to follow suit next year, making this the last major competition with the century-old 6.0 scoring system.

“I have to say, there’s no better way to say goodbye to the 6.0 system than tonight,” Agosoto said.

Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov were second for a second straight year. Lydia Manon and Ryan O’Meara were third.

Though Belbin and Agosto are the best U.S. dance team in decades, they will likely be staying home for the 2006 Olympics. Belbin is Canadian, and she isn’t expected to get her citizenship until 2007 — a year too late.

But forget the paperwork. Belbin and Agosto are so much better than anything else the United States has to offer, it really isn’t a fair fight.

Skating to a medley of Russian gypsy music, they transformed the Rose Garden into a camp in the old country after a long night of song and celebration. They even looked the part, with her in a beautiful deep red dress with purple and gold accents and him in black Cossack boots with a beard giving him an authentically rugged look. They stayed in character for the entire 4 1/2 -minute program, playful and seductive.

But Belbin and Agosto do a lot more than look pretty. Their program was filled with difficult — and entertaining — elements from start to finish. At one point, he even did a kicking jump like one of those old-time Russian dances.

“Tonight was very special,” Agosto said. “All week we’ve been feeling really confident and very strong, and we just really wanted to go out and have a good time and show everybody how much we love to do what we do.”