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Belbin, Agosto build energy for Spokane, Vancouver

World silver medalists prepare for likely final push

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto will face some stiff competition at the U.S. Championships.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto will face some stiff competition at the U.S. Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/05/2010) - After years of gliding into the U.S. Championships as regal favorites, suddenly, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto look like underdogs.

The five-time U.S. ice dance champions aren't defending champions, having missed last season due to injury. They withdrew from the Grand Prix Final after Belbin underwent emergency oral surgery. Now, they're hard at work tweaking their programs, injecting extra excitement wherever they can.

And they wouldn't expect it to be any other way.

"This sport has evolved so much, it's a constant battle," Agosto, 27, said. "There's never been a moment in our career where we haven't tried to make ourselves better, make our programs more difficult. It's just a normal part of the sport."

"Everyone else is pushing the envelope, and if we don't, we won't keep up," Belbin, 25, added.

Despite winning both of their fall Grand Prix events, including their fifth career Skate America title, the reigning Olympic silver medalists earned scores a bit lower than they would have liked.

Two of their top rivals -- U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won the Grand Prix Final with personal-best programs, and two-time Canadian world medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir -- eclipsed their point totals, although neither team competed against Belbin and Agosto head-to-head.

"Our Grand Prix [events] gave us a great opportunity to see how our programs were accepted by the audience and judges," Agosto said.

"We think we found out where we need to make some changes. Initially, our goal was to work on those changes after the Grand Prix Final. Of course it was disappointing not to be able to go, but we've been accomplishing a lot, getting our programs to what we want to represent at nationals and the Olympics."

Most of the changes have come to their free dance, but they've also taken a second look at their Moldavian folk routine.

"In the OD, we've focused on higher intensity, keeping the moves sharp and clean, making it more frenetic," Belbin said. "It all comes down to repetition and training."

The couple felt their performances of their elegant and understated free, choreographed by coach Natalia Linichuk to "Ave Maria" and Rossini's "Amen," could use an extra doses of energy and passion.

"We found there was too much of a lull in the center of the program," Belbin explained. "It starts off well with "Ave Maria," but we want the middle part to build steadily to the end, not drop down and then build back."

Much of the work has centered on the lifts.

"We've adjusted the timing [of the lifts] so there's more space to build up speed," Agosto said. "We've worked to make the entries and exits smoother and faster, getting the lifts more automatic.

"With all the training we've done, we're both much stronger this year than in the past, and we've converted that into more difficult lifts. Now we're getting them to fit the program. They should flow smoothly, so that [the audience] is not watching and saying, 'Wow, that looks like a difficult lift.'"

The tinkering includes replacing the second (curve) lift in the program.

"We didn't feel it fit in as well as it could have," Agosto said. "We came up with a better idea that fit the program with better flow and helps keep the energy going."

Their Olympic preparation isn't limited to training. As two of the country's better-known winter athletes, the team -- especially the glamorous Belbin, recently tagged "America's hottest Olympic athlete" on the cover of Men's Health -- have become commercial faces of the games, with spots on NBC advertising and print ads for Polo Ralph Lauren's Olympic 2010 collection.

Sometimes, admitted Belbin, it's takes extra effort not to look ahead.

"We did the photo shoot for Ralph Lauren with the opening ceremony look, and they gave us full Olympic apparel well before it was released, but besides for the shoots I won't wear it yet," she said.

"We're always respectful of the [team selection] process. We have to take everything step-by-step. Right now our focus is on nationals."

The last few years have been tumultuous for the world silver medalists, who have taken home two bronzes and a silver in the four world championships since the '06 Games.

After a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2008 worlds, they left Canton, Mich., and mentor Igor Shpilband (who coaches both Davis and White, and Virtue and Moir) to train under Linichuk and her husband, Gennadi Karponossov, in Aston, Pa.

There, the Americans share ice with Russian champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who beat them by just 1.22 points for the world title last season. Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, and U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, also train in Aston.

"We skate with Oksana and Max everyday, doing our run-throughs," Agosto said. "We draw to see who skates first. We try to simulate competition as much as we can.

"Certainly, going through the same experiences has built up a certain camaraderie. They're great training partners, just as Charlie and Meryl, and Tessa and Scott, were back in Canton."

While neither skater is willing to pinpoint a retirement date, both admit their competitive days are likely winding down.

"Clearly we have to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunities and life after the Olympics, but we really have to keep our minds focused on the task at hand," Agosto said. "There are less than two weeks until nationals, and each day is precious."

"We've found we don't get very far when we start skipping ahead and talking about the future," Belbin added. "It's up in the air even where we will be [living]. We moved to Pennsylvania solely to train; I don't think either of us necessarily has plans to live here [permanently].

"We may live on opposite sides of the country during our professional career. That's so completely scary to me. It's hard to wrap my head around the idea of not seeing Ben every day."

While Davis and White's high scores may make them favorites to repeat as U.S. champions in Spokane, Belbin and Agosto refuse to focus on what one rival team might do.

"It's dangerous when you start saying, 'We want to place here' or 'We want to beat this team,'" Agosto said. "What's most important is we feel we're the best we've ever been this season, with the best material we've ever had.

"If we're able to put it all out there, we can be the best that day. We have to go after the performance and not worry about outside edges or turning a rocker. We have to put every ounce of our souls into the program, so that for everyone watching, there will be no question who is the best."