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FIGURE SKATING

Americans come into their own in ice dancing

Success had eluded the Americans for years in the discipline, but now Team USA can probably count on a medal at World Figure Skating Championships and next year's Olympics.

March 25, 2009|Philip Hersh

It used to be that the United States had two left feet in ice dancing.

Suddenly, it's the one figure-skating discipline in which Team USA probably can count on a medal at the world championships that began Tuesday and the next Olympics.

"That's exciting for us," said Ben Agosto, part of the leading U.S. ice dance team with Tanith Belbin. "For a long time, ice dancing was in the shadows, and now it's coming into the spotlight."

Of course, the medals aren't as sure a bet as they used to be in ice dancing, in which results had appeared to have been mailed in weeks before the competition by judges who gave medals based on reputation or national prejudice.

The absence of reigning world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France because of her shoulder injury has resulted not in those below them moving up in lock-step but a particularly unpredictable competition.

Only one of the top three teams after Tuesday's compulsory dance -- Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada -- were medalists in 2008.

Silver medalists a year ago, they are third going into Thursday's original dance, behind Oksana Domnina-Maxim Shabalin of Russia and Belbin-Agosto. Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White are fourth.

U.S. teams had gone 20 years without a senior world medal until Belbin and Agosto won their first of three in 2005.

Until 1998, no U.S. team had won the world junior championships -- or any medal at world juniors from 1985 to 1997.

But U.S. dancers have won six of the last 12 junior titles, with Belbin-Agosto among the champions (2002) on their way to a 2006 Olympic silver medal.

"Confidence is a huge part of it," Belbin said. "Since it never had been done, no U.S. team approached a competition feeling they could. At some point, that started to turn around."

Changes in judging rules helped change the state of ice dancing and played to U.S. dancers' strengths.

"U.S. teams always were ahead of the time in terms of difficulty in their footwork and the intricacies of their lifts," Belbin said. "The new system does acknowledge that."

Agosto couldn't do any sort of lift for much of this season.

A back injury forced him and Belbin to withdraw from December's Grand Prix Final and January's U.S. championships. They received an injury bye onto the world team.

When Agosto told his mother about the injury, she thought it might end his career.

"That thought never crossed my mind," he said. "It was like, 'This really stinks, but how do I get back? Let's get it done as soon as possible.' "

The result was evident Tuesday, when he and Belbin were back to where they had been, once an unlikely place for U.S. ice dancers.

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phersh@tribune.com

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latimes.com/sports

Late night at Staples Center

Results of Tuesday night's pairs skating competition are available on the Web.

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