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Davis, White win title, trip to Vancouver

Belbin, Agosto and Samuelson, Bates also named to Team

Meryl Davis and Charlie White are scheduled to compete at the NHK Trophy.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are scheduled to compete at the NHK Trophy. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2010) - Asked earlier this week if he'd many any changes to Meryl Davis and Charlie White's Phantom of the Opera free dance, coach Igor Shpilband just smiled.

"Why change something that's perfect?" he said.

Today, those words proved true -- almost.

Davis and White defended their U.S. title with a free dance full of thrills and chills, from a fast-paced opening spin to risky-looking acrobatic lifts and bravura twizzles.

"As soon as we finished, all we could say was wow," Davis, 23, said. "It was an amazing program for us. We really felt we were able to put together the technical elements with all of the emotion. It was exactly what we wanted to do."

The couple, who won four events this fall, outpaced their scores on the Grand Prix, earning 108.76 points for their free dance and 222.29 overall, a new personal high.

Even with a one-point deduction, likely for an extended lift, they bested former training mates Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for the first time in competition by 3.78 points.

Still, said Shpilband, there's ample room for improvement.

"They can get the Level [4] for the spin. And don't get a deduction for a too-long lift. Plus, we haven't given up on getting Level 4 for the steps.

"They have won everything this season, but this is the biggest thing they've done. This was the most amazing nationals I have ever seen in the 20 years I've been watching."

The skaters and their coaching team, which also includes Marina Zoueva, said arriving in Vancouver as U.S. champions was a huge advantage.

"It's important in your home country to come out on top, going into the Olympics," White said. "Internationally, the reputation that comes along with it is very important. What we're trying to do at the Olympics is win."

"Absolutely, it's a huge advantage, and it's well deserved," Shpilband, who coached Belbin and Agosto for ten years before they left him in 2008, added.

In contrast to Davis and White, coming into Spokane, Belbin and Agosto tinkered with their free dance to "Ave Maria" and Rossini's "Amen," changing the second lift and re-vamping the middle section with the goal of adding a jolt of espresso to the understated program.

The five-time U.S. champions also wore new costumes, replete with cut outs, ruffles and sequins, which looked more Vegas than Vatican.

"This is figure skating," said Belbin, 25.

"At a [close] distance, it's going to look very flashy, but from far away it's going to give a little bit more of an artistic impression," Agosto, 28, added.

While the reigning world and Olympic silver medalists matched Davis and White in terms of difficulty, gaining five Level 4s for their elements, their elegant performance lacked some of the younger team's excitement, and their program components were scored more than two points lower.

They earned 106.60 points for their free dance, outstripping their fall scores, and finished with 218.51 overall, having placed second to Davis and White in all three segments of the competition.

Knowing this is almost certainly the team's final U.S. Championships, the crowd rose in tribute.

"That was so humbling," an emotional Belbin said. "A standing ovation, we haven't one for a long time. After ten nationals, to finish like that, we're very grateful."

While they stopped short of a formal announcement, both skaters indicated this would be their final U.S. Championship.

"We've had so much time to grow in this sport, and we've really given our whole lives to it, dedicated everything, there's still a lot out there in the world we'd like to experience," Agosto said. "Luckily we're still at a young age relatively, where we can look at other objects and explore other avenues."

Asked how they can defeat Davis and White and step up to gold in Vancouver, Belbin said, "We haven't really had a lot of time to assess what we want to pinpoint. Our goal at nationals was to keep the emotion level high, and I definitely feel like we achieved that. Now we go home and work on the general strength and power."

2008 world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates grabbed the bronze medal and, likely, the final U.S. Olympic ice dance spot with a solid program to Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's version of "Canto Della Terra" that looked far more polished than it did in the fall.

The team earned 93.73 for the free dance and 190.69 overall.

"Watching the Olympics four years ago, we didn't think 2010 was within the realm of possibility, but we progressed quicker than we thought we might have," Bates, 20, said.

"It's overwhelming. We haven't been involved in media summits, and we haven't done a lot of interviews. Now that the dream is real, it's a cliché to say you're speechless, but it's hard to think of right adjectives."

Skating to Bono and Mary J. Blige's version of "One," Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre's natural style and fluid choreography captured the crowd, but failed to impress the judges enough to lift them above Samuelson and Bates. The two-time U.S. bronze medalists finished with 186.42 points, some 4.27 out of third place.

"I think that if we hadn't skated the way we skated, maybe felt like we were a little cautious, we would have had those 'what ifs,'" Bommentre said. "The way we related to each other, that is one of our strengths that I feel is undeniably good. So maybe we missed some of the elements but we showed our strengths and we played our cards."

"I feel satisfied; I feel full," Navarro said. "I feel like the performances we've had this year have told our story and I can't think of a better way to close that chapter."

2009 world junior champions Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein were fifth in the free dance and fifth overall. Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell finished sixth.