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Belbin, Agosto win OD, close in on world title

Training mates Domnina, Shabalin still hold overall lead

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won the original dance with a whopping 65.16 points.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won the original dance with a whopping 65.16 points. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/26/2009) - "It always means something to beat Russians."

Tanith Belbin's words could be seen as a rallying cry in the cold war of ice dance, but in this case she's talking about a couple she and partner Ben Agosto see every day: Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin.

Since last May, the teams have trained alongside each other in Aston, Pa., under 1980 Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov. It seems to be paying off for both, as they sit just 0.64 points apart going into Friday's free dance.

"I honestly don't see any disadvantage to training with them," Agosto said. "You know what they say, 'Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.'

"Not that we're enemies; we're good friends. But every practice is a competition. We watch each other out of the corners of our eyes; we're always trying to work harder."

At Skate America, Belbin and Agosto's original dance to Kander and Ebb's Stepping Out caused them to lose ground. At the Grand Prix Final in December, it put them in fifth place. They later withdrew from the event due to Agosto's back injury.

The program has been transformed since then, and not just because of Belbin's bright red beret and lipstick. It's faster, brighter, with the feel of a big MGM musical. Like the other top couples, the Americans earned Level 4s for all of their rated elements and positive Grades of Execution across the board. They won the event with 65.16 points.

"It's seven points ahead of our season's best, and that's a big step," Belbin said. "We focused on showing what we've been working on -- more confidence, broader posture, more speed."

"Moving to Natalia and Gennadi, our goal was to reinvent ourselves," Agosto added. "We didn't necessarily like our skating as much as we used to. We wanted a remake of ourselves."

Domnina and Shabalin were also delighted with their score of 64.68, which was a season high for them too.

"We are happy about our skating today," Shabalin said. "We took Level 4 for all our elements for the first time this season -- actually, for the first time in our career."

Linichuk's choice of music for the couple, a Waltz written by Dmitri Shostakovitch in the 1930's, fit the letter of the ISU's 2008-09 OD guidelines -- music and dances of the 20's, 30's and 40's -- but not the spirit. The routine lacked the effervescence and charm of many of the other programs, but that didn't matter in the judges' eyes.

"Sure, when we chose this music, we was thinking about it, and we decided on this because [it was different]," Shabalin explained.

The Russians won the 2008 European title but have been plagued by Shabalin's knee injuries ever since, withdrawing from the 2008 World Championships and the 2009 European Championships. Whether Shabalin can hold up during the four-minute free dance is still a question mark.

"It hurts a little bit," he admitted. "It's getting back. I think it's never going to be 100 percent. I hope I will be happy if it will be 90 percent."

After the first two couples, the enthusiasm level in the mixed zone dampened considerably. Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won the world silver medal last season, were clearly disappointed with their sixth-place original dance, especially considering Moir's stumble at the end of a footwork sequence. They earned 61.05 points and enter the free dance with 100.42, in third place but some five points off the lead.

"I had control in the beginning. I just over-checked my turn a little bit and tried to get it back too hard," Moir said.

"Obviously, we've fallen back a bit more than at the beginning of the day. Obviously, it was not our best, but we're still in third place and we can still show we have the best free dance in the world tomorrow."

Like the Russians, the Canadians have had an injury-filled season, with Virtue missing valuable training time due to injuries to her legs. She said that wasn't a factor here.

"I feel great," she said. "My legs feel so much stronger these last few weeks."

U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who train with Virtue and Moir in Canton, Mich., also had a few missteps, with the speedy White faltering slightly on twizzles. They placed third in the OD and are fourth overall with 100.33 points, just nine hundredths out of medal position.

"It wasn't our best performance, but we're really proud we got all Level 4s for the first time this season," Davis said.

"There were little things here and there, but generally it was very solid," White added.

Last season's world bronze medalists, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, remained in fifth place, with 99.02 points.

U.S. bronze medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates have charmed audiences all season with their OD to Cole Porter's "Let Yourself Go," and the rousing applause they earned this afternoon was no exception. The judges were a bit less impressed, awarding the U.S. bronze medalists 54.97 points, well off their season high. They enter the free dance in 12th place.

"That was the best result ever, to come off the ice with a feeling of such joy and happiness," Bates said. "Fifteen seconds in, I could start to feel it, and I said, 'Hang on, don't make a fool of yourself.'"

The couple gave full credit to coaches Yuri Chesnichenko and Yaroslava Nechaeva, who train them in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"The attention to detail they have and the work they put in is just mind-boggling," Bates said. "You can get to the rink at 7:00 a.m., and see their cars there parked side-by-side until 10:00 p.m."