Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto joined an elite group of American ice dancers when they won their fifth consecutive title at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn. Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky were the first to accomplish this feat back in 1972, and ironically, this team along with Ron Ludington, invented the compulsory dance that was used in the first phase of the competition here in Saint Paul.
Belbin and Agosto (Arctic FSC) also join Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert (1981-85), Elizabeth Punsaan and Jared Swallow (1991, 1994, 1996-1998), and Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernychev (1999-2003) as five-time champions, but remain the only team from the United States to have ever won an Olympic ice dance medal.
“This is even better than four,” Belbin said with a laugh. “I think that it just feels good because of the performance we gave.”
Belbin added, “We are honored to be mentioned in the same breath of such greats. We have trained with Naomi and Peter, and have worked with Liz and Jared in the past. It is just unbelievable.”
The reigning Grand Prix Final silver medalists showed great passion for skating with their Chopin medley program, and earned their highest competition score (216.07) at the U.S. Championships since the new judging system was implemented in 2006.
“I think that was our best free dance this season,” Belbin said enthusiastically. “I think that crowd certainly helped, but I am glad that we were able to use them to help us rather than be intimidated by them. This is the best audience that I have seen in a hell of a long time for a free dance, and I want to thank the local organizing committee for putting the schedule together.”
Dressed in black with silver flair, Belbin (23) and Agosto (26) earned level 4 on each of their elements, and were also rewarded for the quality in which the elements were executed with positive GOEs. The champions were also given program component scores ranging from 8.68 all the way up to an unheard of 9.07.
“This year’s free dance is such a joy to perform,” stated Agosto, “especially compared to past free dances that may have been a bit more frantic or upbeat. It’s such a nice feeling to use the emotion that is so prevalent in this music, and it is getting a little more natural as the season goes on.”
The current World bronze medalists were of course named to the team heading for the World Championships in March, and have decided to opt out of the Four Continents Championships for the first time in order to focus on their preparations for this competition.
Earning their second trip to the World Championships and their first silver medals at the U.S. Championships, were Meryl Davis (Arctic FSC) and Charlie White (Detroit FSC). The young team is in their second year of competition at this level, and performed like seasoned pros as they skated their Eleanor Rigby program almost to perfection.
“We always say ‘go out there and skate hard and good things will happen,'” White said. “We have definitely taken a big step in achieving the character that we want, and working on the connection between us. So we are very happy with what we have worked hard to improve.”
It appeared as if Davis was terrified and on the brink of tears as she took her opening pose for their free dance, but she later explained that this was all part of the character of the dance.
“I’m portraying a very sad and alone character who has led a very sad and lonely life,” Davis shared. “So the look of crying on my face is supposed to be there. As the program progresses, Charlie and I become closer, and he is like a dream guy that I want to be with… at the end we are torn apart and I am back to the reality of being alone again.”
Davis (21) and White (20) earned a personal best score of 206.82 points, and earned a level 4 on each of their executed elements (minus their level 3 serpentine lift). However, the Sweden-bound duo was quite pleased with everything that they accomplished in the free dance and in the competition overall.
“We want to improve upon this performance and move up the rankings at worlds,” White admitted. “This has been a great competition for us, and we have silver medals, too!”
The silver medalists will lead the team that heads to Seoul, South Korea next month for the Four Continents Championships.
Fan favorites Kimberly Navarro (Santa Rosa FSC) and Brent Bommentre (Philadelphia SC & HS) were nostalgic and a little bit emotional when they learned that they earned the bronze medals and their first trip to the World Championships.
“We can’t wait,” said a humbled Bommentre. “We are honored to be in this position because of how hard we worked and because we are going with two great teams. It’s going to be an incredible experience because they are not only great skaters, but also great people as well.”
Navarro admitted to being overwhelmed with emotion. “I didn’t want to be disappointed, and I didn’t want to focus on (making the team) either. I just appreciate it, and it is just now starting to sink in.”
Skating a sultry program to Since I’ve Been Loving You by Corinne Bailey Rae, Navarro and Bommentre painted a romantic picture of true love gone wrong. Last year’s pewter medalists wove their bodies in and out of different positions throughout the program, and seemingly represented the internal struggle as the love between two people dies.
Navarro (26) and Bommentre (23) have also been named to the Four Continents Championships team, and will take confidence from earning a personal best score of 187.94 points in this competition. They earned a level 4 on each element, save for their dance spin which Bommentre admitted to flubbing.
“We had a great skate, and we did a fantastic job on everything – except our spin that I am going to go home and practice like a million times,” Bommentre shared. “We were really happy with it otherwise.”
The team also incurred a deduction for going over the allowable time limit on one of their lifts, but was not bothered as much by that mistake.
“We know where the lift should pick up in the music,” explained Bommentre. “We sat it down on the right time, but we picked it up early.”
Finishing in sixth place, but fourth overall, Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates (Ann Arbor FSC) made an impressive debut on the championship level. The pewter medal winners skated well until the end of their program, when they both fell on a newly added rotational lift which earned them an automatic two-point deduction.
“It was the new element that we just added into our program to make the change to seniors, so obviously we aren’t as familiar with it” explained Samuelson. “We knew that it was a challenge for us that we would have to overcome, but I think that the rest of the performance was very good.”
Skating to Luna by Alessandro Safina, last year’s Junior champions earned a level 4 on each of their other elements, and used the strength of their lead heading into the free dance to hold off a strong challenge by two teams placed behind them. The Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalists earned a competition total of 175.16 points, easily outscoring the fifth place finishers by over five points.
“This was just a great experience,” Samuelson announced. “It takes a lot of hard work to be at senior, and we’ve learned that. We know that we have to keep improving to make ourselves better and stronger to come back for next year.”
Samuelson (17) and Bates (18) have been selected to compete at the Junior World Championships where they will be among the favorites, and hope to bring home the gold medal to the United States. They will be joined by their training mates and this year’s Junior champions, Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Jennifer Wester and partner-husband Daniil Barantsev (Dallas FSC) skated a happy program to music from Singing in the Rain, wearing bright yellow costumes made by Wester’s own hands to finish in fifth place.
“I love happy colors,” said a giggling Wester, “and this is my favorite era to portray. So when I decided to redo the costumes, I was going through the fabric store and saw the yellow and thought ‘that makes me feel good.'”
The Nebelhorn Trophy champions used feel-good choreography and five level 4 elements to score a personal best total of 169.37 points overall.
“Tonight was good,” said Barantsev. “I made some mistakes in other parts of the competition, but tonight was good.”
After their program, an overwhelmed Wester was overcome with the emotion from a week of tough competition and a season of sacrifice for the young married couple.
“We were honestly hoping that with all of the hard work that we put in this year, that we could manage to get a little bit higher this year,” said Wester with a quiver in her voice. “We want to thank all of our fans for cheering for us and supporting us this season.”
Wester (22) and Barantsev (25) have been selected to represent the United States at the Four Continents Championships as a reward for their placement at these championships.
Finishing in sixth place overall, but fourth in the free dance, Jane Summersett and Todd Gilles (Broadmoor SC) far exceeded their own expectations in their first season together.
“Our goal was to come here and skate as well as we could,” said Summersett. “We really didn’t have any expectations of placement, so we are really happy with what we have accomplished.”
Though the team has only been skating together for about nine months, Summersett (20) and Gilles (21) earned high levels of difficulty for their executed elements to place above several more seasoned teams. More importantly, the duo scored well for their program components, which can often take years to achieve.
“The match fit together right away for us,” Gilles admitted. “It was nice to come back after a mistake in the compulsory to have two strong skates.”
Finishing in seventh place and skating to Time to Say Goodbye, was the long-limbed Texas-based team of Charlotte Maxwell (All Year FSC) and Nick Traxler (Stars FSC of Texas). The team earned their best finish at the event, and improved their personal best score by over 14 points which motivates them for the future.
“Hopefully we get some more international experience next season,” Traxler said. “Our goal is to keep moving up nationally every year.”
Mimi Whetstone (Oklahoma City FSC, Inc.) and Chris Obzansky (Salt Lake FS), a second year team who skated to a peppy jive program, finished two spots up from last season in eighth place. Meanwhile, Lynn Kriengkrairut (All Year FSC) and Logan Giulietti-Schmidt (Stars FSC of Texas) finished in ninth place in their first try on the championship level. Mauri Gustafson (All Year FSC) and Joel Dear (Stars FSC of Texas) rounded out the top 10.