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Dance takes center stage in Aston

Top American and Russian teams share coaches and ice time while vying for gold

International dance judge Jenny Mast; coach Gennadi Karponossov; IceWorks executive vice president and part-owner Uschi Keszler; and coach Natalia Linichuk, who with Karponossov won 1980 Olympic dance gold.
International dance judge Jenny Mast; coach Gennadi Karponossov; IceWorks executive vice president and part-owner Uschi Keszler; and coach Natalia Linichuk, who with Karponossov won 1980 Olympic dance gold. (courtesy of IceWorks)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(07/11/2008) - The rolling hills and wooded landscapes of Aston, Pa., a low-key suburb of Philadelphia, are pulsing with a bit more rhythm these days after a sudden influx of the world's best ice dancers.

When the husband-and-wife coaching team of Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov arrived at the four-surface IceWorks Skating Complex last year, they brought an estimable stable of students, but no bona fide superstars.

That changed this spring, when a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships prompted reigning Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto to leave long-time coach Igor Shpilband to train under the couple, who won the 1980 Olympic title.

"What we have been looking for is a fresh breath, if you will," the 26-year-old Agosto said. "After skating together 10 years this month, we had reached a certain point where we were no longer feeling anything new, no longer enthusiastic and excited about what we were doing."

So far, he added, the move is paying off.

"Coming here to work with Natalia and Gennadi has been an incredible experience so far . . . it's like learning to skate all over again," Agosto enthused. "Every day a new amazing thing is revealed to me."

Perhaps most amazing, just eight weeks after the Americans announced their move, European champions Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia -- who had defeated Belbin and Agosto at the 2007/2008 Grand Prix Final -- also made the trek to Aston. They, too, are seeking a new start: Shabalin's knee injuries forced the couple's withdrawal from the '08 worlds.

"It was a very hard decision," the 26-year-old Shabalin, whose English is more advanced than the 23-year-old Domnina's, said. "Our whole world has changed. But the time had come that we [had to] do something new in our skating, and we think Natalia and Gennadi are the best coaches in the world."

Domnina and Shabalin, who have twice won the Russian title, joined a group that includes not only Belbin and Agosto but former world junior champion Morgan Matthews and partner Leif Gislason, who hope to make their competitive debut this fall. Teams from Switzerland, Latvia, Ukraine and Japan are also training at IceWorks this summer, and U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre practice there several days a week.

Uschi Keszler, the former coach of two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko and executive vice president and part owner of IceWorks, said the Russians' arrival benefits all of the athletes.

"As soon as [Domnina and Shabalin] came, the energy was different," she explained. "It was amazing and immediate. All of the skaters have more energy in every step. It's friendly. Some places have venom, but not here. Everyone helps each other."

Linichuk emphasized the decision to accept Domnina and Shabalin as students came only after consulting with Belbin and Agosto.

"The Russian skating federation contacted me and asked if I would take this couple," she said. "Of course, I talked to Tanith and Ben about it first. I would not have done it without their consent."

The Americans, who previously trained at Shpilband's school in Michigan alongside world silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir among others, said friendly competition was par for the course.

"I've found out over the years it doesn't matter who I'm skating with, I can always learn from them," Agosto explained. "We're extraordinarily lucky to have a large group of talented skaters here and everyone can teach us something . . . Training partners can push each other on a daily basis and help us become the best skaters we can be."

"We are both experienced teams," the 23-year-old Belbin added. "We would be foolish to regard each other as our main competition; we need to consider the entire top group of teams internationally."

Linichuk pointed out that she and her husband have coached top teams simultaneously before. In the '90s, two-time Olympic champions Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov and two-time world champions Anjelica Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov shared the ice at the University of Delaware.

"It is not the first time the strongest teams have skated together, and we have had big success," the coach said. "We always give the maximum we have to all of our couples."

Still, both of those teams were Russian, and Grishuk and Platov were the acknowledged world leaders. These days, under a more objective judging system, as many as five or six teams are jockeying for the top few spots. Belbin and Agosto and Domnina and Shabalin are competing for a single prize: gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. And only one team can win.

"Well, there is a precedent for [double] Olympic gold medalists," Belbin said with an impish smile at an IceWorks press conference yesterday.

While Belbin's bon mot drew laughs, it unwittingly called attention to the sometimes cutthroat nature of ice dance competition. After all, the alleged root of the so-called "deal" at the '02 Salt Lake Olympics was an exchange of judges' votes to secure the gold medal for the French team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat. But so far, all is well in Aston.

"Having now been here for over a month I honestly can't tell you enough how pleased we are with our improvement," Belbin said. "The facility has really welcomed us and it's just really nice to be part of the skating family here.

"We think we made a big change; I can only imagine how [Domnina and Shabalin] feel. Hopefully, we can all find the success we are seeking."

There are a few practical considerations. Next year's U.S. and European Championships are scheduled for the same week in January, and the coaches cannot be two places at once. When pressed, Karponossov said, "I go to internal [U.S.] competitions; Natalia goes to international, so most likely she will do Europeans."

For the Russians' part, Shabalin's travails clearly played a role in the couple's decision to relocate from Moscow.

"Last season was the worst time in my life," he said. "I skated at Europeans on one leg and with [pain] injections. Our [former] coach, Alexei Gorshkov, did a lot for us, but we needed a new motivation. Of course he was a bit angry when we told him we were leaving, but we had to do something."

While he anticipates being ready to compete at Cup of China in early November, Shabalin admitted he was not yet practicing at full strength.

"I feel much better compared with a few months ago, but it is not 100 percent," he said. "I think I am at 70 or 80 percent of my best condition, so there is hope. I will go for treatment here in America, they tell me there are some very good doctors."

So far, the Russians' biggest challenge has come off the ice.

"I cannot buy a car, and it is [a] big problem," Shabalin groaned. "You can't just walk to places here. It's not like Moscow."

As Karponossov, who has been ferrying the skaters to and from the rink, explained, "Max has a B-1 visa, and it does not let him buy a car. He could rent a car, but the people [at the DMV] said he needed [more] temporary ID, and they could not help us. I could add him to my insurance, and let him drive my car, but that is more paperwork."

Linichuk is less concerned about her students' lack of transportation.

"They will have no time to drive around; this is their home, on the ice," she said. "We are all working all of the time. That is the key."