Notes from Everett's edge, part deux

Inoue, Baldwin partner with Aflac duck; Tanith and Ben would do it again

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto trail by less than one-point headed into the original dance.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto trail by less than one-point headed into the original dance. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(10/25/2008) - Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were a hit showing off their big tricks in shows in Japan in July and August. But the approval of audiences, though gratifying, wasn't enough.

"We missed competing; the satisfaction you get is completely different than shows," Baldwin, 35, said.

So, the veteran couple used their show schedule as a kind of training camp. They got new choreography from Phillip Mills this summer, but didn't start training complete run-throughs until a few weeks before Skate America. Simultaneously, they've been putting the finishing touches on a new home in San Diego; the closing is on Nov. 27.

"It keeps us on our toes," Baldwin said. "Maybe we went a little overboard with the customization of the house, though."

In August, the couple announced an endorsement deal with Aflac, the Fortune 500 Company that markets supplemental health and life insurance in the U.S. and Japan.

"In Japan, not only do they have medical and life insurance, but they also have special insurance that helps pay for cancer drugs and treatment," Inoue, who lost her father to the disease and overcame her own cancer diagnosis in 1998, said.

"There are now two different Aflac commercials in Japan: the one with the famous Aflac duck and another that is specific to cancer insurance. John and I did the second one."

Baldwin said the couple will be even better prepared for their next event, the NHK Trophy Nov. 27-30.

"The time between Skate America and NHK gives us the chance to really train the programs," he said. "We've also worked with [two-time Olympic pair bronze medalist] Lloyd Eisler five or six times; we wanted to do more with him, but with our show schedule it didn't work out. We worked together on some new lifts, but they're not ready for the program yet."

Beaming in the mixed zone, Ben Agosto pronounced the Viennese Waltz he and Tanith Belbin just performed as "about the most comfortable I've ever been in a compulsory dance."

"It was the first time we've done a compulsory at any event where we weren't shaking the entire time," Belbin agreed. "We're always nervous that something's going to go wrong in the compulsory."

The couple, who are shooting for their fifth Skate America title, give all the credit to their new coaches, Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov. A fourth-place finish at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships -- caused, in part, by Belbin's fall on a compulsory -- prompted the move this spring, and since then the Olympic silver medalists have sought nothing less than a complete overhaul.

"We've learned all new technique the last few months, starting from ground zero," Agosto claimed. "For a few months I was like, 'what am I doing out here?'

"There are a lot of eyes on us, but that's what we wanted. If we hadn't made such a drastic change, we wouldn't be given the opportunity to be reconsidered," Belbin reasoned.

The five-time U.S. champions firmly maintain they're delighted that Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia, the reigning European champions, also joined Linichuk and Karponosov's group this spring.

"Even knowing that, we would still make the move in a heartbeat," Agosto said. "We're so happy with our decision. Relocating is never easy; in terms of stress its right up there with death [of a family member] and divorce, but Natalia and Gennadi have been very, very helpful. They split their time exactly 50-50. We all get the same number of lessons.

"We will meet [Domnina and Shabalin] later this fall at Cup of China. It's a big benefit training with them. We're always looking at each other, thinking, 'What are they doing?' I feel we've never had this much consistent practice time."

Just two short seasons ago, Yu-Na Kim was battling it out with Mao Asada for the world junior title. Now, the 18-year-old from South Korea feels like a veteran.

"Yes, I have heard about newcomers like Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu, who are new to the senior Grand Prix," Kim said through an interpreter. "It's kind of a little bit of pressure, but I'm not focusing so much on the other skaters. I'm concentrating on myself.

"Just a few years ago I was just like them. Now I feel more comfortable showing myself as a senior lady."

Kim's coach, Brian Orser, said his skater is fighting fit, recovered from the back and hip injuries that plagued her last season.

"Yu-Na has been ready for [Skate America] for a while; she's anxious to get out there," he said.

"She's a skater's skater. Ask another skater who their favorite is, and often they'll say Yu-Na. Obviously she's good technically but she also has an incredible passion for the sport. She skates from the heart, which really makes it easier for her choreographer, David Wilson, and I to help develop her skating. She was a young girl and now she's growing into a woman."

Orser, who won Olympic silver in 1984 and 1988, said Olympic and world gold is his pupil's goal.

"David and I have already discussed what direction we would like to go with her [in terms of programs]," he said. "She needs to focus on this season because the pre-Olympic year is very important. After worlds, we'll start looking ahead. I never make predictions, but if you're asking me if she's the best skater in the world, I'll say yes."

Note: After a hard fall in practice, Italian lady, Valentina Marchei has withdrawn from the competition.