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Belbin, Agosto hang on to fifth U.S. title

Champs reign supreme, but Davis, White keep it close

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto enjoyed a strong free skate, propelling them to their fifth consecutive U.S. national ice dancing championship.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto enjoyed a strong free skate, propelling them to their fifth consecutive U.S. national ice dancing championship. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/26/2008) - Performing to the lilting melodies of Chopin, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto once again dominated at the U.S. Championships, bringing home their fifth consecutive title.

But training mates Meryl Davis and Charlie White are getting closer all the time.

"I think that was the best free dance performance we've had so far," the 23-year-old Belbin said. "At the end, I said to Ben, it's the best we've done in years."

Clad simply in black, the couple performed their spare, elegant choreography with exquisite speed and flow. All eight of their elements, including a stunning combination curve and rotational lift, gained Level 4; their circular step sequence was the highest-rated, with a +2 Grade of Execution.

Belbin and Agosto earned 109.92 points for their free dance and 216.07 points overall. Both totals were their highest scores ever at the U.S. Championships.

"This free dance has been a joy to perform," the 25-year-old Agosto said. "It's such a nice feeling to get into the music. With each time we do it, it becomes more and more natural for us."

Despite their success, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists took criticisms of their lifts, line and speed to heart this summer, adopting a "back-to-basics" training approach with emphasis on their stroking and extension.

"We're always going to push ourselves, especially within our basic skating," said Agosto.

"We want to continue working on our edges, power threes and all of our elements," added Belbin.

The couple, who teamed up in 1998, had not performed a free dance to classical music since their "Four Seasons" program in 1999. Only after careful consideration with coach Igor Shpilband did they settle on Chopin.

"It's totally new for us, and it required a lot of training to improve our lines and posture," Agosto said.

Through the first two phases of the competition, Davis and White stayed within a few points of the champions.

Tonight, their stirring and fluid free dance to the Beatles' "Eleanor's Dream" and "Eleanor Rigby" was close to Belbin and Agosto's technically, earning seven Level 4 elements.

The difference was the program component scores, where Belbin and Agosto edged their young rink mates by 4.20 points. Overall, Davis and White gained 103.54 points for their free dance and 206.82 points total.

"The energy we brought on the ice has been a big step for us, and it's always nice to get higher and higher in terms of our standard," the 20-year-old White said.

Unlike some dance rivalries of the past, the teams training under Shpilband in Canton, Mich., seem to be having a love fest. Belbin and Agosto even took a break from answering media questions to watch Davis and White's program. Afterwards, there were hugs all around.

"It's been a great nationals for our entire rink and our coaches," Belbin said. "Meryl and Charlie doing so well is a great thing. The emotional level [of the programs] was great tonight."

"It's so inspiring skating with Ben and Tanith; they've helped us so much," added White.

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre had a solid third-place finish, earning 187.94 points total.

Although their free dance to Corinne Bailey Rae's "Still Loving You" was not as technically difficult as the top two teams' routines, it had merits of its own. The couple skated in a modern, natural style, and Navarro hit lovely stretched positions in the lifts and spin.

"We had a great skate," Bommentre said. "We came out of the original dance, where we missed some of our levels, and we're really happy with this performance. It's the first time we got a Level 4 on a step sequence."

Although the U.S. team has yet to be announced, it is likely the top three finishers here will be sent to the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

"Making the world team would mean the culmination of three really dedicated years of work," Navarro and Bommentre's coach, Robbie Kaine, said. "I'm proud of them to get that recognition."

U.S. junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates overcame a disruptive fall on their rotational lift to place fourth, with 175.16 points. Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev were fifth with 169.37 points.