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World champs hold slim lead after Waltz

Belbin, Agosto sit second, just .86 points behind

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder lead after compulsories at Skate America.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder lead after compulsories at Skate America. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/24/2008) - Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder took the ice this afternoon in Everett with nothing but joy in their hearts.

"We aren't thinking about the pressure," Delobel, 30, said. "All of us want to give our best. We will try to relax and enjoy everything.

"It was only in May we decided we would continue this season. We are already so happy with our choice, because we love the choreography of our new programs so much. And just to be with the audience and on the ice, we love that too."

As expected, the world champions capitalized on their technical skill and experience to win the Viennese Waltz compulsory dance with 38.49 points. They performed the light and graceful dance to near perfection, even adding a touch of humor at the start when the lanky Schoenfelder bent down to look his petite partner in the eye in a nod to their size difference.

Compulsories are a strong point for the French ice dancers, who have skated together since 1990. Current International Skating Union proposals suggest the dances may be eliminated in a few years, but that makes little difference to Delobel.

"We are going to stop [competing] before they are gone, so it doesn't matter," she laughed. "I think, for junior teams, for sure the [compulsories] are good. But I don't know if [eliminating] them will be good for senior teams; I can't say."

They're in second place, but Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto feel their coaching change to 1980 Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov is already paying dividends.

The five-time U.S. champions sit just .86 behind the world champions; at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships a disastrous fall on the Argentine Tango put them 5.71 points off the lead. And at their last Grand Prix event, the 2007 Cup of China, they were 2.88 points behind after the compulsory.

"That was the most confident I've ever felt in a compulsory dance," Agosto, 26, said. "I was more in control of myself. There was a lot of anticipation but [fewer] nerves."

"Obviously we still have a lot of work to do, but I felt stronger, more confident and down in the ice," added the 24-year-old Belbin. "We did a respectable job."

Since moving from Igor Shpilband's school in Canton, Mich., to train with Linichuk and Karponossov in Aston, Pa., the couple has spent much of their time re-tooling their technique with special exercises and countless stroking and edging sessions. They said this work is most apparent in their compulsories.

"Clearly compulsories have been one of our weakest points overall," Agosto said. "It was easier applying the new technique to the compulsories, where we were never very comfortable anyway. In the original and free dances, it's a lot harder."

British champions Sinead Kerr and John Kerr are third with 34.37 points, some 3.26 points off the lead. Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost, who train alongside Delobel and Schoenfelder in Lyon and placed second to them at last season's French championships, are fourth with 32.26 points.

World junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates of the U.S. performed a speedy, elegant waltz that put them fifth with 31.81 points.

"Compulsories are a strong point for Emily and Evan," Yaroslava Netchaeva, who coaches the couple with Yuri Tschesnitchenko in Ann Arbor, Mich., said. "They are very strong technically. One of their best points is their unison, and how close together they skate."

"It's definitely exciting just to be on the same ice as Tanith and Ben and all of these great teams," Bates, 19, said. "We're using it as a motivating factor. We're the up-and-comers, and this is a big stepping stone for us. We're fighting to be in the top three [in the U.S.] so we can be on the [2009] world team. This Skate America is the best senior Grand Prix debut we could ask for."

Jane Summersett and Todd Gilles, who placed sixth at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, are in eighth place with 27.50 points.

"It was an honor to be chosen to compete here," the 22-year-old Gilles said. "We worked hard over the summer, and it's great to be out there on the Grand Prix showing what we can do."