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Excited Belbin still in awe of U.S. championships

Five-time U.S. ice dance champion gears up for icenetwork.com commentary duties

Tanith Belbin sees something intriguing in every dance duo, top to bottom.
Tanith Belbin sees something intriguing in every dance duo, top to bottom. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(01/10/2013) - In their extraordinary and game-changing competitive ice dancing career, Tanith Belbin and partner Ben Agosto made 10 appearances at the U.S. championships, winning the junior title in 2000 and five senior titles (2004-08). They competed in two Olympic Winter Games, winning a precedent-setting silver medal in Torino in 2006.

Despite enjoying great success on the international stage, Belbin still views the U.S. championships with great affection. As she prepares for the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, at which she will work as a commentator for icenetwork.com, she reflected on the special place the competition holds in her heart.

"I remember at my first U.S. championships, the big thing was I was going to be in the same event as Michelle Kwan. That was the first mind-boggling aspect of it all. It wasn't just that I'd made it myself, but more so I would be able to see, with my own eyes, all of these skating champions," Belbin, 28, said.

Heading to the 2000 U.S. Championships in Cleveland, Belbin's family -- who'd relocated to the U.S. from Canada for her training -- found it hard to afford a hotel room just for her. Reigning U.S. ice dance champion Naomi Lang, then a rinkmate in Detroit, offered to share a room with her.

"That was a really unique first U.S. nationals experience -- to be able to actually room with the U.S. champion and to see how she conducted herself as a role model," Belbin said. "It was really eye-opening to see how important that was with the younger skaters and how she presented and conducted herself as a champion all the time the entire week. I learned a lot from her in that experience."

As Belbin's career progressed, she and Agosto found themselves quickly transitioning from the pursuers to the pursued.

"There's really no comfortable place to rest in there," she noted. "That's a fabulous way to keep all of our athletes motivated."

In addition to their own transitions, Belbin and Agosto saw the U.S. ice dance scene completely transform, thanks in large part to their international success. From eight teams their first year in seniors (with seven finishing) to 15 in their final U.S. championships in 2010, they experienced "all of the colors of the dance world," Belbin said.

On a daily basis, Belbin works as a coach and choreographer at two rinks in the Detroit area. A skater for whom she's choreographed -- Barbie Long in junior ladies -- will be competing at the U.S. championships. She's also had choreographic input into the programs of several other skaters. In these final days until she heads to Omaha, Neb., Belbin is also preparing for her work behind the microphone, commentating all of the programs in senior dance and serving as co-host of the AT&T ICE Desk..

"From the first-place team to the last-place team, there is certainly something to appreciate," she said. "My mentality as a commentator is to ensure that, overall, I'm delivering a positive message, even when a team doesn't skate their best. I try to find at least one or two things to point out where they really excel.

"I've always tried not to talk over the lower-level teams or use them to discuss the teams that are coming up," she added. "Truly, every team has something unique to comment on."

During last summer's Olympic Games in London, Belbin took on a new role, working with NBC's "home team." Based in New York throughout the Games, each day Belbin did human interest stories about the athletes competing. Most of her pieces appeared on NBCOlympics.com.

"It wasn't as interactive with the actual sports as what I'm used to in commentary, but it was a unique opportunity," said Belbin, who has been taking courses in communications at a community college for the past couple of years. "It was a great stepping stone, and all of this commentary and experience are hopefully adding up to an opportunity to work for NBC in Sochi."