Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The new Tanith and Ben

From The Everett Herald by Rich Myhre

The new Tanith and Ben

Back in the spring of 2006, fresh from winning silver medals at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were near the pinnacle of international skating. All they needed, it seemed, was to take one final step to the top.

Instead, barely two years later, the American tandem -- he is native born, she is a naturalized citizen -- took a deliberate step backward.

It happened after the World Figure Skating Championships last March in Goteborg, Sweden, where favorites Belbin and Agosto failed to medal after an inexplicable fall by Belbin in the compulsory program. It was a hard-to-fathom moment, akin to Tiger Woods needing only a 2-foot putt to win the Masters -- and missing.

But for Belbin and Agosto, who will be in Everett this week for Skate America, their problems at the world championships were more significant than a onetime stumble.

"I think we'd been feeling slightly dissatisfied with our skating leading up to that point," Agosto said by telephone last week. "And we weren't really sure what it was."

Belbin's fall in Sweden and the duo's subsequent fourth-place finish were "definitely a slap in the face," he said. "That was a wake up call. We had to stop and look at what was going on, and then decide what to do."

And they decided to make changes.

First, they ended their working relationship with coach Igor Shpilband and choreographer Marina Zoueva, with whom they had trained in Detroit for 10 years. Their new coaches are Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, the gold medalists in ice dancing at the 1980 Olympics, and a married couple who live and coach in the Philadelphia area, where Belbin and Agosto now live.

But changes of personnel and geography were just the beginning. Under the tutelage of Linichuk and Karponosov, Belbin and Agosto committed themselves to relearning the rudiments of ice dancing.

"We've been working so hard to really break down the fundamentals we've been practicing for 10 years," Agosto said. "We'd been skating one way, and with our new coaches they've been trying to get us to learn new techniques with basic skating."

"Our training is above and beyond anything we've ever experienced," Belbin said. "We took a long time this spring and early summer going back to the basics with our new coaches."

Weeks passed, in fact, and Belbin and Agosto were beginning to wonder when they would start choreographing new routines for the coming season.

"We were very, very nervous about the difference in the timing of our preparation," Belbin said. "But our coaches just said, 'Trust us, you need this. We can't just cover up your weaknesses in choreography anymore. We have to fix them."

It was a sobering message, but one Belbin and Agosto came to understand and appreciate.

"Without doing that," Belbin said, "we'd be just trying to get lucky like we always have. We needed to fix the problems so that we can stand on our two feet confidently on the ice, and really feel that we are the best skaters out there."

Indeed, with emphasis on the proper techniques and training, their new coaches have told Belbin and Agosto that they can go into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., with "a chance of being unbeatable," she said.

Belbin and Agosto have dominated American ice dancing in recent years, winning the past five U.S. championships and the past four Skate Americas they entered (they did not compete at Skate America in 2006).

Still, for all their accomplishments and fame, certain successes have eluded them. In addition to their runner-up finish at the 2006 Olympics (just weeks after Belbin, who was born in Canada, received her U.S. citizenship), they have yet to win a world championship in eight tries.

The Olympics, of course, are the foremost event on any figure skater's calendar, with the world championships a close second. With that in mind, Belbin and Agosto are planning and preparing "100 percent long-term," she said, although in the meantime events like Skate America are a chance to polish routines and identify areas of weakness.

In Everett, Agosto said, "it's going to be really exciting for us to go out and show this new way of skating for us. It'll be a chance to debut the new Tanith and Ben."

Because Belbin and Agosto are such gifted and charismatic skaters, their performances are often highlights of any event. They will skate three times this coming weekend -- a compulsory dance on Friday afternoon, an original dance on Saturday afternoon and a free dance on Sunday morning -- and they are hoping to generate an enthusiastic response.

"We really feed off of that energy," Belbin said. "Being a skating fan myself and from watching other skaters in those moments when they capture the audience, you can feel it. There's a different atmosphere when those great skaters take the ice and give that special performance. And when we connect with the audience on that level -- and it's only happened to us a very few times in our competitive career -- you can feel it and the judges feel it."

"One of the most important aspects of skating for us is the interaction we have with the audience," Agosto added. "The audience plays a really, really large role in our performance, and it's kind of give and take. The more we can give to the audience and the more that they respond, that gives us even more energy to work with."

"While we're required to perform our elements for the judges, I think for our own satisfaction we really want to perform for the fans," he said. "So we're excited to come to Everett. We've skated there a few times on Champions on Ice, and we've always had great crowds. There's a lot of knowledgeable fans in Everett, and they seem to have a great time and really enjoy the competition."

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