French win Skate America dance title

"New" Belbin, Agosto win free dance

For Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, it's their first gold at Skate America.
For Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, it's their first gold at Skate America. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(10/26/2008) - The "new" Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto broke through Sunday afternoon in Everett, Wash., with a striking free dance to "E lucevan le stelle," the tragic aria from Puccini's Tosca.

"We are so pleased with the progress we've made with our new coaches," Belbin said. "This was our first free dance in years where we didn't try to hold anything back."

"This music is so beautiful, and it has so much power, passion and emotion. We knew it was for us," Agosto added. "We're really looking forward to continuing to build the program throughout the season."

Although the five-time U.S. champions won the segment with 91.43 points, it was not enough to overcome a 1.65-point deficit from the first two rounds of competition. Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, whose smooth and intricate routine to Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" earned 90.89 points, will take the Skate America title home to Lyon.

"This program is about when we decided to continue our career," Delobel said. "The music is saying, maybe we are going to continue, maybe not. In the end, it is of course yes."

After winning the world title in Gothenburg, Sweden, in March, the French duo spent several months mulling over retirement. In May, they decided to continue and turned to former training mates Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, the now-retired two-time world silver medalists, for their free dance. The program has some of that couple's open, romantic style.

"We listened to maybe five or more music [selections] with Marie and Patch, and this was the best one," Schoenfelder said. "We feel very good in it. It is a little bit more modern than what we have skated to before, but the challenge is good."

Delobel and Schoenfelder scored five Level 4 elements but lost a point when their rotational lift went over time.

"Of course, we have to improve the technique -- some lifts and some steps aren't ready -- but the feeling of this program is good," Schoenfelder said.

Since moving to Aston, Pa., this spring to work with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, Belbin and Agosto have talked repeatedly about how their new coaches have stripped their skating down to the essentials and rebuilt their technique. This was particularly evident in their lifts, all of which earned Level 4.

"We worked with a ballet coach to develop these lifts, and I think that [made them] more successful, with more appealing positions and a little bit better lines," Belbin explained.

"Sometimes you're so anxious to break the mold and show something new you don't realize that it's truly an unattractive position you're winding up in. It was nice to feel confident and strong in our lifts, whereas in the past we maybe questioned whether one or two were suited to the program. I think this year our free dance is much better as a whole and much more cohesive, lifts included."

Scottish siblings Sinead Kerr and John Kerr lost any chance to crack into the top two when they faltered on a difficult twizzle sequence midway through their routine to "Ruled by Secrecy" by Muse. They placed fourth in the free dance with 88.09 points but won the bronze medal overall with 180.20.

"I think we skated this program better in our first event of the season [the Finlandia Trophy]," John said. "Obviously, there was more pressure here, and I think we were a bit behind the music. But our aim was the top three, and we're happy with that. Still, we both feel we can skate a lot better and hope to do so in three weeks [at Trophée Bompard]."

Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates made an impressive Senior Grand Prix debut, placing third in the free with 88.84 points and fourth overall with 175.66.

Their free dance to Croatian composer Tonci Huljic's angst-ridden "Amazonic" was exceptionally clean and difficult, earning them the highest technical marks of the event.

"It was definitely a big breakthrough for us," Bates said. "We've always been looking forward to this week and making our senior debut. I don't think we could ask for much more."

Performing to Nino Rota's La Strata soundtrack, Jane Summersett and Todd Gilles placed seventh in the free and seventh overall with 156.62 points.

"I think we skated it pretty well," Gilles said. "I think we went over [the time limit] on a lift. Other than that, it was good for us. We went out to have fun; we wanted to enjoy ourselves."