Ice dancers seek Olympic success in Vancouver

In the spring of 2008, while America was lurching toward change, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were doing the same.

For the most decorated ice dancers in U.S. history, it seemed an unlikely urge.

Since teaming up in 1998, they had, after all, won five national titles, their most recent just months earlier. In 2006, their silver medal at Turin had been the best Olympic finish ever by a U.S. team. They were happy training and living in Detroit. They were good-looking, had plenty of money and were in constant demand.

So what could they do except chuck it all and move to an industrial park in Aston, Pa.?

Now, two years after that switch, their lives, techniques, routines and ambitions remade under new coaches in a new environment, Belbin and Agosto are in Vancouver.

There, in a field that includes a world-champion Russian pair who train at the same Delaware County, Pa., rink under the same two coaches, they are trying to climb that final medals-podium step at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Ice dancing began Feb. 19.
That medal jump from silver to gold was one that, after a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2008 world championships, they came to believe might never happen unless they changed coaches, cities, comfort zones.

"We were in such a good place in Detroit," recalled the 28-year-old Agosto, who is half Puerto Rican. "We had a great team around us, and we were very happy there. But we just felt like we weren’t achieving anymore. We’d stopped growing. We’d plateaued a little bit. So we finally decided to make a change."

The biggest change, they knew, would be selecting new coaches. So they made endless lists of the best. And the same two names kept finishing on top — Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov.

That married Russian couple had won a gold medal at the 1980 Olympics and, later, a reputation as perhaps the world’s best ice-dance instructors.

The road that led them, and ultimately Belbin and Agosto, to Aston began in the uncertainty following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Linichuk and Karponossov fled Moscow and landed at the University of Delaware rink in Newark. In September 2007, they moved their students a little north on I-95, to the more spacious facilities at Ice Works, a four-rink complex in Aston.

"When we came here," Karponossov said, "ice dancing was not so popular. Now, look."

In April 2008, Belbin and Agosto joined them there. A month later, the Russian duo of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin followed. By the 2009 world championships, those two teams, the Russians and Americans, would finish first and second, respectively.

"They were Olympic champions themselves," Agosto said of his coaches. "They knew exactly what we needed. We needed a new direction, someone to tell us what to do and how to do it."

Agosto described the switch as dramatic, one that was like learning to skate all over again.

"It was a huge change," he said. "If my old coach had said, ‘I want you to lean to the right,’ they said, ‘I want you to lean to the left.’ It was almost like up was down and black was white. I never thought at this stage of my career there was so much that I didn’t know."
It wasn’t just skating they had to relearn. Belbin, who became a U.S. citizen shortly before the ’06 Games through a special act of Congress, was born in Kingston, Ontario. Agosto was from Chicago. They had been in Detroit for a decade. Moving to the Philadelphia area required a major adjustment.

"We still don’t really know a lot about the area," said Belbin, 25. "From the day we got here we’ve just been training. I haven’t had a lot of time to see the city. I did get to see the Liberty Bell, though. It’s a great city. I just don’t have the time to take advantage of it."
Belbin has settled into an apartment complex near Concordville that is popular with Ice Works skaters, while Agosto and his girlfriend rent a nearby house.

That proximity to Philadelphia International Airport and New York, where their busy endorsement career often requires them to be, has proven a huge plus.

Once named by ESPN as the sports world’s No. 2-rated "hot chick," Belbin has several lucrative marketing deals, including one she recently signed with Olympic sponsor Procter & Gamble. She and Agosto also are spokespersons for Ralph Lauren and DeBeers.
"We depend a great deal on endorsements (for financial support)," Belbin said. "And being in Philly helps us get a lot more business done. But we’re not going to live there when we’re done, and so we haven’t developed a real sense of community there."

It’s little wonder. Their typical day on the Olympic-sized Rink 2 at Ice Works is wearying just to contemplate.

They arrive at the massive facility on Duttons Mill Road about 7:15 a.m. They get into their skates and at 7:45 have ballet lessons. At 8:30, they’re on the ice for the first of two lengthy training sessions with Linichuk and Karponossov.

Sometime before 11, they break for lunch but are back on the ice at noon. At 2 p.m., they switch to workouts with their physical trainers. Those can last till 4:30, when they stop to practice lifts, ride bikes or do other exercises.

"Physically, we’re stronger this year than we ever were before," Agosto said. "Four years ago, I couldn’t do 10 push-ups. Last Olympics I was so tiny. I was frail. I could never do the lifts that you see now. On a personal level, I feel stronger than ever. I’ve got a whole new level of confidence."

That confidence hit a little bump at the recent national championships in Spokane, Wash. After missing that event in ’09 because of Agosto’s back injury, they were edged out last month by the up-and-coming team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

"It was so close. This close," Karponossov said, holding his fingers a millimeter or so apart. "But if you want to know how they lost, you should talk to the judges. That is all I will say about that."

For their part, Belbin and Agosto downplayed the surprising loss. They said they treated their appearance at the nationals as "a final practice session" before the Olympics.

"To say that we must be U.S. champions in order to be confident going into the Olympic Games, we don’t need that," Belbin said. "We will hold our own against the top contenders regardless of the outcome" in Spokane.

They arrived in Vancouver to find the Olympic spotlight on ice dancing more intense than any previous American teams have experienced.

Their success, the emergence of Davis and White, and the renewed popularity of dance in America thanks to shows like "Dancing With the Stars" have combined to place Belbin and Agosto in the upper echelon of recognizable Olympians.

"We’re really lucky to be ice dancers right now," Agosto said, "because the interest has been broadened so much."

(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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