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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Lang, Tchernyshev Let Freedom Sing

Ice dancing: Joyful, unfettered routine earns three 6.0 scores and gold medal. Handra, Sinek also get Olympic berth.

January 13, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His red shirt was unbuttoned and flowing. Her dress, black with multi-colored sparkles, seemed to dance in the lights of Staples Center. Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang were wearing happy clothes, the perfect complement to their skating Saturday.

With unfettered joy and freedom, Lang and Tchernyshev performed to the music "Parisian Walkways." The program earned the couple three perfect scores of 6.0 for presentation and, more importantly, their first trip to the Olympics.

Lang, 23, of Allegan, Mich., and Tchernyshev, 30, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who earned his U.S. citizenship last year, won their fourth consecutive U.S. Figure Skating ice dancing championship and the chance to skate next month in Salt Lake City. They are the first team to win four straight nationals since Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert from 1981-1984.

Earning the silver medal were 17-year-old Tanith Belbin of Kirkland, Canada, and 19-year-old Benjamin Agosto of Beverly Hills, Mich. The young couple also brought the crowd to its feet with a tender dance to the music "Tribute to Sarajevo." The bronze medal went to 20-year-old Melissa Gregory of Chicago and 23-year-old Denis Petukhov of Russia.

Since both of those teams are ineligible for the Olympics, Beata Handra and Charles Sinek were perhaps the happiest fourth-place finishers ever. "Thank goodness for our tough citizenship laws," said the 33-year-old Sinek.

He and Handra, 25, who are married, will also be first-time Olympians, something hard to imagine last August. Sinek had knee surgery and then a blood clot. He was off the ice for 41/2 months and the two didn't begin training until Nov. 1.

Both Belbin and Agosto and Gregory and Petukhov said they were just happy to be celebrating their U.S. medals.

"We weren't expecting to progress this quickly, maybe," Agosto said, "but we just wanted to skate as well as possible and do our best." Belbin, who has applied for U.S. citizenship, said all she hopes for now is to be eligible for the 2006 Games.

Four years ago Tchernyshev and Lang came to the Olympic trials knowing they had no chance because of the citizenship issue.

"This is a long-awaited dream come true," Tchernyshev said. "It was a long process. I've spent 10 years in this country. I was in the same position as Denis and Tanith four years ago. I know it does feel a little bit bitter. But I would tell them that if you pursue your career, your dreams will come true one day."

Lang and Tchernyshev were bronze medalists at those 1998 nationals and it's the last time they didn't win gold.

While their presentation marks were all 5.9s and 6.0s, Lang and Tchernyshev were marked as low as 5.4 for technical difficulty. Tchernyshev said he and Lang needed to check with the judges, but he thought a deduction might have been taken for one of the lifts because Lang was out of contact with the ice for longer than the prescribed time.

The technical marks will need to be higher if the couple is to have a chance to challenge Italian, Russian and French dancers for an Olympic medal.

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