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Stiff competition at the top of ice dance rankings

Lots of contenders, but no clear-cut favorite for 2008-09 season

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin hold the No. 1 ranking now, but they will have a tough time holding off a host of talented challengers in 2008-09.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin hold the No. 1 ranking now, but they will have a tough time holding off a host of talented challengers in 2008-09. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(10/10/2008) - In icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings, the ice dancing list is certainly the most hotly contested. No less than five teams made their claim for the top spot during the 2007-08 season, and the upcoming year expects to be no different.

To prove how close the teams are, reigning world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France are not the No. 1 team. That honor belongs to Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia, despite them missing the 2008 ISU World Championships due to injury. The gap of just 2.73 rankings points between the two teams is easily the narrowest margin of any 1-2 spots among the four disciplines.

Having finally climbed the mountain at worlds last season, the veteran French team is not worried about sitting in second to start the season. The couple enjoyed the Stars on Ice tour in France this summer before deciding to come back for this season and possibly beyond. They are scheduled to compete at the Grand Prix Series-opening Skate America, so they will waste no time in trying to move up to the top of the polls.

The closeness among the top teams is not restricted to the points alone. In June, Domnina and Shabalin surprised many in the skating world when they announced that they were leaving their longtime coach, Alexei Gorshkov, to move to the United States to train with 1980 Olympic gold medalists Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov in Aston, Pa. That move would not have stirred up as much controversy had five-time U.S. champions and three-time world medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto not joined with Linichuk and Karponosov eight weeks earlier. The Russians had no reservations about training so closely with one of their main competitors.

Soon after the decision to move, Shabalin told the Russian news agency, Allsport, "Well, the competition will only benefit us."

The Americans similarly had no qualms with the current situation. "I've found out over the years it doesn't matter who I'm skating with, I can always learn from them," Agosto explained to icenetwork.com during the summer. "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."

For Belbin and Agosto, who opened the year ranked No. 3 in the rankings, training with the top teams in the world is nothing new. With their old coach, Igor Shpilband, in Detroit, the Americans worked alongside Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the world's fourth-ranked duo. It seems that the best ice dancers in the world do not believe in the old saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt."

Virtue and Moir, the discipline's rising superstars, are hoping to build off their silver-medal finish at last year's world championships in Gothenburg. They are gearing up towards a run at the top of the podium at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but their coronation could come a season early. With two full seasons at the senior level now under their belt, Virtue and Moir are firmly planted in the upper echelon of ice dancing.

The No. 5 team in the world is Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski. The reigning world bronze medalists defeated Belbin and Agosto in Gothenburg, but their real coming-out party was the free dance at the 2008 European Championships in Zagreb, Croatia. Their performance brought the crowd to near hysteria, especially when the judges' scores placed the Muscovites in only third place. The audience gave Khokhlova and Novitski a much heartier applause than both the gold medalists, Domnina and Shabalin, and the silver medalists, Delobel and Schoenfelder. Similar performances for Khokhlova and Novitski in 2008-09 will no longer be a surprise.

It will be difficult for any other team to crack into that group of the top-five dance teams in the world. Up next in the rankings are two more veteran European teams -- Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali in sixth and France's Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat in seventh. They are closely followed by two young American teams that certainly have the potential to move up the rankings in the future.

U.S. silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who still train under Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, are ranked eighth in the world. Davis and White made huge strides in 2007-08 and hope to follow in the footsteps of their training partners, Virtue and Moir, to the top of the sport. Last year, the young Americans earned their first Grand Prix medal -- a bronze at the Trophée Eric Bompard -- and finished second at the ISU Four Continents Championships.

Nipping at their heels are 2008 world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. The Michigan natives already have their first senior-level victory under their belt, winning gold at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month. Samuelson, 18, and Bates, 19, could have the brightest future out of any American team.

While Italy's second-ranked duo, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, rounds out the top 10, two brother-and-sister European teams are close behind. Great Britain's Sinead Kerr and John Kerr (No. 11) and Israel's Alexandra Zaretski and Roman Zaretski finished eighth and ninth, respectively, at last year's worlds. It was the first time either team had cracked the top 10 at the world championships.

Finishing up the top 15 are U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, Russian bronze medalists Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Russian junior champions Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov.

Navarro and Bommentre earned their first world championship berth last year and won their first international medal (bronze at Four Continents). Bobrova and Soloviev, the 2007 world junior champions, now have one full season at the senior level under their belt and are hoping to move into the top 10 at worlds. Gorshkova and Butikov will make their Senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada later this month.

Rounding out the top 20 are Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost of France, Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier of Canada, Kristin Fraser and Igor Lukanin of Azerbaijan, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Canada, and Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell of the United States.