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French are one dance away from title

Belbin and Agosto remain fifth despite strong original dance

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto sit in fifth place after the original dance round at worlds.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto sit in fifth place after the original dance round at worlds. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/20/2008) - Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto fought back from a disappointing Argentine Tango with a clean, energetic rendition of their Appalachian Hoedown original dance, but it wasn't enough to close the gap.

The five-time U.S. champions, widely expected to challenge for gold here at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, remained in fifth place overall.

"All of the elements were smooth, and we nailed the footwork," Agosto said. "It was solid. We trained hard and did our job. Now, we're excited to go out and show our free dance."

The routine opened with the rollicking "Cotton-eyed Joe" and progressed smoothly into a playful country waltz. The couple traded Agosto's wide-brimmed black hat back and forth several times, adding a whimsical touch to the intricate footwork, and their unison on the twizzles was solid.

Still, the judges were unimpressed, awarding the team 64.69 points, several points off their personal best.

After falling in yesterday's compulsory, Belbin collected herself and remained positive about the event.

"Ben helped me to calm down," she said. "We spent a lot of time with our coaches [Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva], and they pointed out that everyone is only human and we all make mistakes.

"It's not a coincidence that of the most recent world champions, at least one member of the team has been 30 years old. This is the first time we've gone to worlds picked as favorites for the title. Whether or not I realized it, that's a lot to have on your shoulders. No matter what, we can still gain a lot from this championship."

Although Belbin and Agosto received the second-highest program component score, their overall Grades of Execution were a bit lower than those of the top teams, and in dance, a fraction of a point can make the difference.

Shpilband was perplexed with his team's placement.

"I don't know what to say," he said. "I think they did very well. They had good energy and all of the elements got Level 4."

Belbin and Agosto head into the free dance with 99.71 points, some 3.81 points out of medal position.

The winners of the original dance, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France, widened their overall lead with a creative French country dance featuring complex footwork executed in superb unison.

"We are very happy with what we did this afternoon," Schoenfelder said. "I think we did very well with it, and the marks were there for us."

After skating together for nearly two decades, the 2007 European champions are on the verge of not only their first world title, but their first-ever world medal, as they enter the free dance with a 4.01-point lead.

In a surprise, European bronze medalists Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski climbed from third place in the compulsory to second overall, with an exciting Russian gypsy dance highlighted by Khoklova's near-contortionist flexibility in their lifts and spin.

"We feel so good," Khoklova said. "We did all we can at this moment. We are so happy the [audience] enjoyed it, and we had such warm support."

Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, second in the compulsory, dropped to third in the original after Virtue executed one fewer rotation in the twizzle sequence than her partner, lowering that element to a Level 3.

Otherwise, their Russian gypsy dance to the familiar "Dark Eyes" was swift and sure, especially in the lifts and circular step sequence.

"At this point in the season, the elements are not our main concern," Moir said. "We want to really build a program. I guess we let that [twizzle sequence] get away from us. Still, it's nothing we can't make up tomorrow with our free dance."

The couple earned 64.81 points for their original and have 103.52 points overall. They are .45 out of the silver-medal position.

Italian champions Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali performed their charming Tarantella with panache, placing fifth in the original, but maintaining fourth place overall with 100.70 points.

U.S. silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White fired off some of the fastest twizzles and footwork of the event in their Russian folk dance, but their spin gained only a Level 2 from the technical panel. They placed seventh in the original and stand seventh overall with 95.16 points.

"I have no idea why that [spin] was a Level 2; we'll take a look and at it and figure it out before the free dance," White said. "We definitely skated our best program of the season out there, even with that spin."

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, bronze medalists at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, performed their African harvest dance with a sense of relief: Bommentre's bags, missing in action since the couple arrived in Gothenburg, had finally arrived.

Although Bommentre opted to compete in the skates he began wearing earlier this week, he performed the dance decked out in his unique tribal costume, complete with skirt.

Despite Navarro's slight slip transitioning out of a spin, the couple gave a spirited performance.

"We really wanted to compete at our first worlds; I would have gone out there wearing your skates, if I had had to," Bommentre told this reporter.

"Certainly, this entire experience has made me appreciate Brent even more," added Navarro. "That he competed in new skates, and was such a good sport about losing his costumes and looking for new ones, it's cool to go home with that."