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North American dancers take center ice

American and Canadian medal hopes soar at worlds

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the gold in dance at Canadian Nationals.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the gold in dance at Canadian Nationals. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/15/2008) - The withdrawal of Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the gold medalists from the ISU Grand Prix Final in December and the European championships in January, from the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships has ignited the possibility of not one, but two North American teams on Gothenburg's ice dancing podium, something that has not happened at the worlds since 1966.

Five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who won world bronze the last two seasons, both times behind the same two couples that have since retired, always have been medal favorites. Now, they are the leading contenders for gold, although it certainly will not be easy.

"This is the most prepared we've ever been heading into any worlds," Belbin said. "And it's also the best year we've felt, as far our package goes, with our programs. We have, in our opinion, a great shot at the gold medal, more so than any year in the past."

Fast-rising Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won their first national title in January, are also solidly in the hunt for a medal.

"Definitely, we're thinking podium," Virtue said. "We're always competing to win. That's what makes it exciting. We're always aiming for the top, and we're constantly working on improving our skating."

Both teams will have to contend with 2007 European champs Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France, who nearly took the gold over the Russians at the Euros this year. Also, Domnina and Shabalin's teammates, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, the European bronze medalists whose free dance in Zagreb caused a near-sensation with the crowd, have a legitimate shot at the podium.

All of these teams will square off in the first segment of the event, the Argentine Tango compulsory, a dance the Canadians have competed only once before, placing second to Delobel and Schoenfelder at the NHK Trophy this fall.

But despite being the newest team on the scene, Virtue and Moir are ready to meet the challenge. The young couple, just 18 and 20 years old respectively, have already skated together for more than a decade. They won the 2006 world junior title and made their senior world debut last season, placing an impressive sixth.

"We're really thankful for this new system," Moir said. "Hopefully, we're proving that you don't have to wait around like you used to in dance, and hopefully, the skating is improving, and that's all very good for the sport."

The International Judging System, which supplanted the 6.0 system in 2004, was developed in part to combat the impression that favoritism and reputation counted for more than technical prowess in ice dancing. After each event, details are distributed showing where and how teams earn points.

Virtue and Moir eagerly devour the judges' critiques, working with their coaches to maximize the value of their elements from event to event.

"We're always working to identify our weaknesses," Moir said. "I thought we did a good job on that last year, knowing that what we weren't doing as well as the top teams was our lifts and our speed. So, we really focused on [those two areas] in the crucial off-season months -- May through September.

"Everyday we were working on lifts. That was the biggest thing -- doing them off the ice, doing them on the ice. A gentleman, who had worked with Cirque de Soleil, a friend of our coaches from Russia, came in, and so did some acrobatic people. Their lifting techniques are so advanced; we really thought they would benefit us."

The work paid off with a fine fall Grand Prix season, where they qualified for the Final, placing fourth ahead of Khokhlova and Novitski but behind Domnina and Shabalin, Belbin and Agosto, and Delobel and Schoenfelder. They established a personal-best 207.32-point overall score in winning their first Four Continents title in February, the highest total score (for compulsory, original and free dance) at an ISU competition this season.

Until recently, world ice dance gold was something of a Russian keepsake; one couple would dominate for several years and then turn the gold over to their successors like a family heirloom.

Beginning in 1970, Soviet-era and Russian teams dominated international ice dancing, winning 27 world titles through 2007. A North American team broke through only once, in 2003, when Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz triumphed (1991 champs Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay were raised in Quebec, but competed for France). On a few other occasions, one skater in the winning couple originally trained in Russia. And while there have always been grumblings about political favoritism, re-viewing many of those events proves Russian born and bred ice dancers were superior.

Now, the North Americans are catching up. The American and Canadian champions, plus U.S. silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White -- also considered favorites for a top-five finish in Gothenburg -- train in Canton, Mich., under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, who were both raised in the Soviet Union's ice dance system.

According to Shpilband, the judging system does not deserve all of the credit for his teams' victories.

"All of the three teams [mentioned above] are very talented and would have been successful under any system," he said. "They do have very strong skating backgrounds and are able to do the things required under the new system, but they would have been able [to succeed] under the 6.0 system as well."

Rather, said Shpilband, old-fashioned hard work is responsible for the North Americans' success.

"The sport is getting so competitive; it just requires more and more from everybody," he said. "[These teams] all work incredibly hard, and they've handled things so well. I'm always very impressed with that."

Moir promised even better things in the future, as the team looks forward to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"Our speed and power, I hope, is improving every year," he said.

"We go back to basics after worlds every year and try to build our skating skills. I don't think we want to stop that through our whole career, so I hope we can just continue to get faster and stronger."