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Call it a comeback

Olympic silver medalists, Belbin and Agosto, are ice dancing again

March 08, 2009|Associated Press

A little more than three years ago, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto weren't simply ice dancing with the stars, they were the stars.

Not a lot has gone as planned since Belbin and Agosto became the first Americans to medal in Olympic ice dancing in 30 years, skating off with silver medals in Turin. And with the Vancouver Games rapidly approaching, they could use a return to normality in their careers.

You know, things like winning the national championship -- their streak of five titles ended in January when they bypassed the event because of Agosto's back injury. Like medaling at worlds -- they finished second twice and third twice.

But order has not been the order of the day this season for Belbin and Agosto, who will make a highly anticipated return to competitive skating at the world championships in Los Angeles later this month.

"This world championship is going to be, if anything, the biggest mental challenge we have had to deal with in our careers," Agosto says. "It has been a year full of firsts, really. We moved to new coaches, we have new techniques in our skating and new choreography and new programs on top of this injury. And I never had an injury like this before, so it has been a lot to deal with."

Indeed, even before Agosto damaged his back, upheaval was the buzzword for the couple whose innovation, energetic style and genuineness have lifted the sport from afterthought in America to the medals podium. After spending nearly a decade with coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in the Detroit area, they switched to Natalia Linischuk and Gennadi Karponosov, who work out of Aston, Pa. That not only meant a change in locale, but alterations in their on-ice presentation.

"We feel so much more capable as athletes, and the confidence level is higher," Belbin says. "We're seeing progress from the Grand Prix season to now in just a couple of months, and that tells me we will be at a higher level for next year."

That would be the Olympic year, but Vancouver must remain far off the radar for Belbin and Agosto. Having missed so much time this season, they understand the need to fully concentrate on worlds.

"We had some judges come in to do a preliminary monitoring and they were blown away," Agosto says. "They could see a large improvement and that we were far beyond where they thought we would be.

"We're better and stronger and more mature and reaching for the goals we set for this year. We will be strong at worlds.

"Next year, we'll be able to improve even more and come out healthy and have that drive -- we won't have to catch up."

U.S. figure skaters have spent decades playing catch-up in ice dancing. From 1976, when Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns won bronze, no U.S. couple took an Olympic medal until Belbin and Agosto broke through at Turin. While Americans occasionally medaled at worlds, a 20-year slump was broken in 2005 by Belbin and Agosto when they took silver.

Their recent success has led to a surge in popularity and achievement in the discipline that once was ridiculed: If you can't skate singles, you go to pairs and if you can't handle pairs, you go to ice dancing. When they join the Stars on Ice tour after worlds, T and B will be among the headliners.

Yet, Belbin and Agosto aren't necessarily the host country's leading duo for the Los Angeles worlds, which begin March 24. National champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, former training partners with Belbin and Agosto in Michigan, have been rising on the international stage, as well.

"It's so nice to be a part of such a strong generation of ice dancing," Belbin says.

"The sport has changed so much and it's a challenge to keep up with it. For the U.S. to move up from behind to the top while the sport is evolving is pretty amazing. We're sure it will continue to where, hopefully, the U.S. will be a powerhouse.

"We would feel great if we made a mark."

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