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Agosto relishes role in U.S. ice dancing history

Five-time national champion keeping busy as coach, choreographer

Ben Agosto and partner Tanith Belbin had many great moments at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, including winning their record-tying fifth national title in 2008.
Ben Agosto and partner Tanith Belbin had many great moments at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, including winning their record-tying fifth national title in 2008. (Heather Meyer)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(01/17/2013) - Ben Agosto is good at seeing things full circle.

Last weekend, he skated in "Unforgettable Moments of Love on Ice" in Kent, Wash., his first solo performance in about 20 years. On the eve of the show, he admitted to a case of nerves, but he was excited to get in front of an audience.

"I've been working really hard for the last month, since they gave me the music," said the five-time U.S. ice dancing champion. "I did the number myself, and I realized I'm a really mean choreographer because it's really hard. I was holding myself to a high standard."

That seems pretty reasonable for Agosto, 31, who with partner Tanith Belbin changed the face of U.S. ice dancing. Although Agosto won't be at next week's 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, his mark will be felt in the many of the dance teams competing there and in their lofty aspirations.

Last year, Belbin and Agosto were the keynote speakers at the novice camp, which is kind of perfect given that at the 1997 U.S. Championships, Agosto and then partner Katie Hill participated in the very first novice camp.

"It was eye opening to concepts like proper diet and training," Agosto recalled. "There was media training, which was foreign and fun, too, but really so helpful in the long run. It helped guide you when you get in those situations.

"It helped build friendships and camaraderie with other skaters," he continued. "Then you go off on the road with them when you're a little bit older, and you already have memories together and experiences."

Since retiring from competitive skating following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Agosto and longtime girlfriend Merrie Parr have moved to Olympia, Wash., where he now coaches. In addition to ice dancing, he works with singles skaters on skating skills, choreography and presentation.

"It's been really fun to be on the other side of the boards," Agosto said. "Definitely makes me a bit nostalgic, but also I have a newfound respect for what the coaches have to do. What a life-encompassing job that is to be somebody's coach.

"It's been really rewarding to do that," he added. "Also, I've really been enjoying doing choreography -- especially singles with the little kids. They get so excited about having new stuff."

Agosto has also been involved with some massive professional choreography, working as Cindy Stuart's assistant choreographer on two new Disney on Ice productions, "Dare to Dream" and "Rockin' Ever After."

The scope and scale of a Disney on Ice production has been fascinating to him.

"The skaters work so hard, and they're so excited to have the opportunity," Agosto said. "Every one of them is so into making this an amazing show. It was really refreshing and so enjoyable to work with them."

Although Agosto will watch the U.S. championships from home, he'll still feel connected to the event. He remembers those early nationals, when the best part was hanging out in the competitors room at the official hotel.

"We were a bunch of kids running around having a great time," said Agosto, a four-time world medalist and the 2006 Olympic silver medalist. "When we'd skate, it would be amazing -- really fun and exciting."

He also takes great pride in how U.S. ice dancing transformed over the years he and Belbin competed -- from their winning the first world championships medal in 20 years by an American couple to bringing home the United States' first Olympic medal in 30 years to simply getting others to share his love of ice dancing.

"You saw this huge boost in energy," he said. "It changed everybody's perspective."

As he and Belbin notched one historic accomplishment after another, he thought of skaters like Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow and Renée Roca and Gorsha Sur, whose marks didn't match their talents. He said he took it personally when he watched those competitions, and feels the results he and Belbin achieved were a bit of justice for those who went before them.

He also held onto his own concept of a job well done.

"When we hit our end pose and then there's a moment of 'We're done,' you think either 'What have I done?' or you have that little fist pump happy moment," Agosto said. "That moment is what I always tried to base my opinion on of how I did. That was my barometer.

"I try to tell my students that moment you finish your program, you have to hold onto that moment," he added. "Your job is what you can control and how you feel you did."