Golden Skate

Belbin and Agosto maintain easy lead at US Nationals

Tanith Belbin (23) and Ben Agosto (26) retained their lead after the Original Dance at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto retained their lead after the Championship Original Dance, but their scores should be raising more than a few eyebrows.

Thus far, the four-time and reigning champions have been outscored in both phases of competition by their younger training mates, Meryl Davis and Charlie White. However, superior program component scores have kept them in the lead, and in the hunt for a fifth straight title.

Skating to a western-theme American folk dance, complete with hitch kicks and fringed costumes, the reigning World bronze medalists had a great performance – if you could subtract just one element – the no touch midline twizzles.

“I put my foot down on the twizzle,” said a disappointed Agosto. “It was just a stupid mistake; I lost my focus for a second.”

“I think that what was really frustrating is that aside from the twizzle, it was a great performance for us,” he later added.

The team received only a level 2 for that element, but made up for it with the level 4 that they received on their other elements.

“I think that (other than the mistake) that everything was cleaner than any other performance this season,” said an optimistic Belbin. “The footwork was stronger and with more speed, and overall, it was just much better.”

The leaders scored 64.29 points in the original dance and have a total of 106.15 overall, but will have to be at their best to win on Saturday.

“Our free dance to Chopin is a new departure for us,” Agosto declared. “We want to stay on top, so we always have to be pushing ourselves and looking towards our end goals.”

Davis and White are coming on strong after a disappointing Grand Prix Season, and are pleased with their performances so far here in Saint Paul.

“Certain aspects of the program were better than we have done before,” explained White. “But others we have obviously done better. We are pretty happy with how everything went.”

Like their teammates, Davis (21) and White (20) also made a mistake on their twizzle sequence, but were not penalized as harshly as Belbin and Agosto.

“I missed my blade on the first twizzle (for) which you need to get four rotations for the level four,” admitted White. “To get that level four, I did an extra rotation.”

Skating a Russian folk dance to Kalinka, the current bronze medalists used every ounce of energy in their bodies. They skated with lightening speed, and performed appropriate choreography in tandem with difficult skating elements. The young team earned 62.69 points for their program, and are just a little less than three points off the lead heading into the free dance. However, they will have a difficult time overtaking the leaders, as Belbin and Agosto’s season best is more than nine points better than their own.

Maintaining their third place position after the compulsory dance, is the entertaining team of Kimberly Navarro (Santa Rosa FSC) and Brent Bommentre (Philadelphia SC & HS), who skated an interesting African tribal dance that drew loud cheers from the audience.

“There were a lot of people from our families, and people from my home club in the audience tonight,” said a happy Navarro. “And then there are the fans that we are so proud to have accumulated, because they have no obligation to support us.”

Navarro (27) and Bommentre (23) performed innovative choreography inspired by Michael Velez (a dancer in the Koresh Dance Company in Philadelphia) as the backdrop to their technical elements that were neatly woven into the program. Never the team to take the traditional route to their programs, Navarro and Bommentre are excited to be in position to earn a spot on the podium.

“I think that this is the best that we have performed this dance all season,” said Bommentre. “We have made some improvements since NHK, and we are committed to improving our skating skills, so we are very happy.”

Last year’s pewter medalists earned a new personal best of 58.71 point for their original dance to Sowete Percussion, and have a total of 94.09 points leading into the free dance.

In fourth place in their first championship competition, are the fresh-faced team of Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates (Ann Arbor FSC). Like Davis and White, this team presented a Russian folk dance program to the music of Kalinka.

“It was a pretty good performance for us,” shared Bates. “It was a bit of an unfamiliar position for us in skating last and behind the Olympic silver medalists. But it turned out to be a good thing because the crowd was excited, and we think that the energy from (Belbin and Agosto’s) performance transferred into ours.”

Coming off an impressive silver medal winning finish at the Junior Grand Prix Final, Samuelson (17) and Bates (18) performed well, and earned the magic level 4 on all of their elements in this program.

“It is the first time that this has happened at the senior level of course,” said Bates, “but we accomplished this several times in our career on the junior level.”

Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev (Dallas FSC) remained in fifth place with a fun program to Cotton Eyed Joe and Country Waltz.

“We just want to attack every program, and today everything went pretty smooth so we are quite pleased,” Wester said matter-of-factly.

Dressed in bejeweled denim shorts and white cowgirl boot covers, Wester (22) certainly looked the part of a young country girl heading to a hoedown. And Wester’s husband and partner wore tight-fitting jeans and a matching shirt that drew cat calls from a handful of audience members.

“I made the costumes myself,” said Wester. “I asked all of the ladies back home at the rink if the shorts were too much, and they thought they were perfect.”

The program was entertaining, but it was not without mistakes as Wester’s more experienced partner made an uncharacteristic mistake on the twizzles.

“I don’t have any answers as to why I made a mistake,” said a puzzled Barantsev, who is a former Junior World Champion. “This has probably been my weakest competition probably in my career. I have made too many mistakes. It’s too much.”

“I think that we have a lot of pressure on ourselves,” lamented Wester. “We are really strapped with the move (to Michigan) and financially to stay in this sport that we love and have given everything up for.”

Moving up to sixth place with a fascinating Native American Indian folk dance, was Charlotte Maxwell (All Year FSC) and Nick Traxler (Stars FSC of Texas). The duo, in their third season together, are excited to be moving up in the standings, and are proud of their accomplishments so far here.

“We skated really well,” said a confident Maxwell. “We had a really great warm-up, so we were very prepared.”

Traxler added, “This is the highest that we have scored all season, and we have worked very hard to get a level four on our footwork. We are so pleased to have achieved that here.”

Jane Summersett and Todd Gilles (Broadmoor SC) moved up to seventh place after a disappointing 10th place finish in the compulsory dance, while Mimi Whetstone (Oklahoma City FSC, Inc.) and Chris Obzansky (Salt Lake FS) slipped from sixth to eighth place overall.

The dancers will be back in action on Saturday afternoon with the free dance, the awarding of medals, and the announcement of the World Team members.

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