Belbin and Agosto current leaders in Torino

The ISU Grand Prix series concluded with the 2007-08 Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating in Torino, Italy from Dec. 14-16. It’s the first time this event is being held in a country that did not organize one of the qualifying events.

The six qualifying events began with Skate America in Oct and ended two weeks ago with the NHK Trophy in Japan. Approximately 197 skaters/teams competed throughout the Grand Prix circuit with only the top 36 skaters/teams qualifying for the Final. The top athletes are now competing for points and prize money equaling $272,000 U.S. dollars.

The competition kicked off on Dec. 14 with the Original Dance and the Men’s, Ladies’, and Pairs Short Programs.

The Original Dance (OD) for the 2007-08 season is the Folk/Country Dance in which teams can select their routine from a variety of different dances from North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

USA’s Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto placed first in the OD, followed by France’s Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France and Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, respectively. The first and fourth place teams are currently separated by a mere 2.5 points.

Belbin and Agosto engaged the audience with their “Appalachian Hoedown” routine in which all elements received positive Grades of Execution (GOE) and were awarded a level four.

It was also evident that the 2006 Olympic silver medalists had made some changes in their music.

“We switched out the first piece and lengthened the Cotton Eyed Joe part a bit,” Belbin later explained. “We felt it connected better with the audience.”

While displaying smooth footwork throughout, the team produced a combination dance spin, a curve lift, and a rotational lift. Their upbeat circular step sequence received +1.60 GOE and the two-time and current World bronze medalists were awarded a new seasonal best of 63.64 (33.50/30.14) points.

Though they were happy with their placement, the U.S. champions had mixed feelings about their performance.

“We didn’t yet give our maximum,” confessed Belbin.

Delobel and Schoenfelder also received positive GOEs on all their elements, however, their circular step sequence received a level three while all others were awarded a level four.

Their French country dance featured an interesting straightline lift in which Schoenfelder supported his partner by the waist with a piece of cloth while she stood on one of his skates with one blade.

The European champions were awarded a new personal best of 63.29 (32.80/30.49) points. They also received the highest program component score for the OD.

“Currently we are in second place and tomorrow we’ll do a good Free Dance,” said Delobel. “The suspense is going to be high.”

Schoenfelder added: “For us, it’s the third time here in Turin. The audience is fantastic and skating on this ice is a good feeling.”

Domnina and Maxim Shabalin delivered a strong performance to Boys, Unharness The Horses! which featured a very good circular step sequence (+1.40 GOE) as well as two difficult lifts and dance spin. The 2007 European silver medalists earned a level four on all elements except for a level three midline step sequence in which Domnina lost her balance a bit at the end.

“It shouldn’t affect the level of the element,” Domnina later explained. “Only the grade of execution given by the judges as I didn’t put my second foot down. Maybe the technical specialists decided that our steps were principally a level three, but this is hard for me to tell.”

The Russian champions were awarded 62.31 (32.20/30.11) points for a third place finish.

Domnina was also happy to return to Torino where the team competed and placed ninth in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

“It feels like we’ve been here yesterday,” said Domnina. “When I came into the rink, I saw everything before my eyes like it was. We have very vivid and positive memories of this event.”

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada are currently in fourth with 61.14 (32.30/28.94) points. The two-time and current Four Continents bronze medalists were awarded positive GOEs and a level four on all elements, and are currently less than two points behind the Russians.

Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski earned a new personal best 58.30 (31.40/26.90) points for their routine to Two Guitars which featured a very good level four circular step sequence (+1.00 GOE).

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France produced an expressive Spanish flamenco and are currently in sixth with 57.73 points.

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