ST. LOUIS — The weight of the gold medal around her neck didn't push Tanith Belbin over the edge Friday night. The weight of the moment did.
That she and partner Ben Agosto would win the U.S. ice dance title was as certain as anything could be at the national championships, which are always stressful but this year are also the key factor in determining the Turin Olympic team. But until she got that medal on a red-white-and blue ribbon, 13 days after she gained U.S. citizenship and the right to represent her adopted homeland at the Games, she'd restrained her emotions.
Finally, the Canadian-born skater's tears overflowed.
"This title feels different for a number of reasons, obviously, the biggest of which is we can compete as American citizens," she said after the couple swept all three phases of the competition and totaled 215.29 points.
"This is the largest crowd we've ever seen at nationals for ice dance," she said of the 7,990 fans at Savvis Center. "We've just taken a huge step in ice dance and I'd like to applaud our competitors. It's phenomenal how far we've come."
Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov of Newington, Conn., remained second with 185.26 points, despite several stumbles. Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O'Meara, who train in Canton, Mich., with Belbin and Agosto, moved up from fourth to third on the strength of their second-ranked free dance, a tango. All three couples were nominated to the Olympic team.
Silverstein and O'Meara had skated with different partners, but Silverstein had overcome several other obstacles: she battled anorexia in her early teens and had left the sport for four years before she returned last January.
"We all pretend everyone's perfect, and no one is," Silverstein said. "But that's what's cool. There's beauty in the flaws....
"Not everyone gets another chance to be a part of something really special."
No U.S. ice dance duo has won an Olympic medal since Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns won bronze in 1976. Before Belbin's citizenship was expedited by an act of Congress, she said the Olympics would not be the ultimate for her; on Friday, she conceded that might not have been true. "It was an honest response at the time," she said. "This is even better."
Ice dance went largely as expected, but the pairs produced several surprises. In winning the title and their first Olympic berth, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr. of Santa Monica became the first duo known to cleanly land a throw triple axel, which raised their technical score to the levels of elite Chinese and Russian pairs.
Inoue and Baldwin's technical score of 66.89 points and program component score of 58.68 lifted them from fourth after the short program to first, with 181.05 points. Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem, who train in Detroit, withstood a fall by Hinzmann on their triple toe loops to remain second, with 165.82 points, and earn the final U.S. pair berth.
"Rena and I knew what we had to do coming in," the 32-year-old Baldwin said after competing in his 20th U.S. championships. "We knew it wouldn't be easy and we would have to pull off the best competition of our lives."
Inoue, 29, competed for her native Japan at the 1992 and 1994 Games in singles and pairs. She became a U.S. citizen in September. "It's hard to explain how excited I am," she said. "I'm sure it's something I'll never forget in my life."
Defending champions Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash of Connecticut, first after the short program, dropped to third with 165.16 points after a sloppy routine.
Parchem was a 2002 Olympic alternate with Stephanie Kalesavich. He and Hinzmann teamed up the next year.
"Never in a million years did I think I'd be up here in this situation," he said at a news conference.
Tiffany Scott, who won the 2003 title with Philip Dulebohn, teamed with Rusty Fein to finish fourth, and Naomi Nari Nam of Irvine and Themistocles Leftheris of Long Beach slipped from third to fifth after performing a program that was appealing but not as difficult as those of their rivals.
Nam and Leftheris, who began skating together last April, were happy with their effort. "We wanted to be a really nice pair to look at, and a good pair to think about for the future," said Nam, a former singles skater.
The top two pairs were also named to the U.S. team for the world championships, to be held March 20-26 in Calgary, Canada. The top three pairs were assigned to compete at the Four Continents event in Colorado Springs on Jan. 25-28.