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Belbin, Agosto make coaching change

Team will move from Canton, Mich., to the IceWorks Skating Complex in Aston, Pa.

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(04/15/2008) - All good things come to an end.

After five consecutive U.S. titles, three world medals and the 2006 Olympic silver medal, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have ended their professional relationship with their longtime coach and choreographer Igor Shpilband and his associate Marina Zoueva, they confirmed today.

The U.S. champions will move their training base from Shpilband's school in Canton, Mich., to the IceWorks Skating Complex in Aston, Pa., where they will train under 1980 Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, the married couple who also coached two-time Olympic champions Pasha Grishuk and Evgeni Platov; two-time world champions Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov; and, more recently, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, the Bulgarian skaters who won world titles in 2006 and 2007.

"They [Shpilband and Zoueva] are a remarkable coaching pair, and we have great admiration for them," Agosto said.

"We never would have achieved our current level of success without Igor and Marina, and we are very grateful for their friendship and their guidance over the past years," Belbin said.

Denkova and Staviski turned to Linichuk and Karponosov after placing a disappointing fifth at the 2005 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow. Their fortunes turned the next season, after Linichuk advised them to skip the '06 European Championships in favor of presenting fresh at the Turin Olympics, where they finished fifth, and the '06 worlds.

Belbin and Agosto now face a similar challenge and hope for similar results after a fourth-place finish at the '08 worlds in Gothenburg, the first time they have finished off the world podium since 2004. They were beaten by three teams -- French champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Russian champions Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski -- they had defeated at previous worlds.

"Detroit will always be like home for us, but sometimes to grow you need to leave home and explore new opportunities," Agosto said.

Virtue and Moir, who also train under Shpilband and Zoueva, at the Arctic Figure Skating Club, were competing in just their second world meet after taking sixth last year. U.S. silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who placed sixth in Gothenburg, are the third top-six team that train in Canton.

After steadily climbing the ranks since partnered by Shpilband in 1998, Belbin and Agosto struggled a bit during the 2006-2007 season, dropping their original "That's Entertainment" free dance in favor of one created to music from the soundtrack of Amelie. They scrambled and won the bronze at the '07 worlds.

"Natalia and Gennadi are highly accomplished coaches, and we are very excited about working with them to take our skating performance to a new level," Agosto said.

But in Gothenburg, after Belbin fell on a turn in the Argentine Tango compulsory and the couple failed to gain ground despite clean performances of their original and free dances, Shpilband had no answers.

"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."

Although Linichuk is generally acknowledged as the guiding force in the coaching partnership, her husband, Karponosov, specializes in training compulsory dances, an area Belbin and Agosto have acknowledged is a relative weakness. Time and again in major competitions, including the Olympics, they have had to make up ground after the compulsory round.

Despite their long coaching career and lengthy residence in the United States, including more than a decade spent training skaters at the University of Delaware, Linichuk and Karponosov have rarely coached American skaters. Most notably, they trained four-time U.S. silver medalists Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov during the 2006-2007 season. In addition, former world junior champion Morgan Matthews of the U.S. and her partner, Canadian Leif Gislason, train with the couple but were unable to compete this season due to eligibility issues.