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Delobel, Schoenfelder best field in dance

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir win free dance, silver medal

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder are aiming for Vancouver in 2010.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder are aiming for Vancouver in 2010. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/21/2008) - In an evening of thrilling performances, a free dance to music from The Piano, the story of a mute woman who communicates with her lover without words, spoke volumes.

In the end, it helped lift Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France to the gold medal, although it did not win the night.

"It was a long, long wait to win this," the 29-year-old Delobel said. "It is our first world medal and it is gold, so it is amazing."

The couple, teamed together in 1990, have competed at eleven worlds. This victory was sweet satisfaction for persevering through difficult times, including many competitions where they felt overlooked by the judges.

"I have a long time skated with Isabelle," the 30-year-old Schoenfelder said. "It is a very long story and a very good story, and of course [our longevity] helps us now because we have confidence together. We know each other's reaction in everything; it is not easy to work together so long, but in the end it is positive."

The French couple's quiet, introspective program was smoothly executed from start to finish, with little bombast and fewer frills. They carried good speed throughout their difficult footwork passages and seemed to skate with quiet confidence.

All of their elements, except the spin, gained Level 4 from the technical panel; the spin received Level 3.

The couple earned 104.96 points for their free dance, putting them second in that segment but first overall with 212.94 points. They took the title by a comfortable 4.14-point margin and scored a new personal best in the process.

"We are very, very happy; it is like a dream come true," Delobel said. "We did a strong competition; we stayed focused until the end. We skated with passion and emotion and that [added] points to our free dance tonight."

In just their second year at senior worlds, Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir earned the silver medal with a poignant performance to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so captivating it seemed to go by in one minute, instead of four.

They won the free dance with 105.28 points, a new personal best, and ended the competition with 207.32, their highest-ever tally.

"It's sad that this is the last time we are going to perform this program, but we did it justice and it was great for us," the 21-year-old Moir said.

The Canadians, too, gained Level 4 on seven of their eight elements; this evening, in a change from earlier competitions, no couple gained all Level 4's. Although subtle, the program built steadily to its two final elements, back-to-back impressive lifts. The audience scarcely took a breath, and at the final note of music, all was silent.

"Everyone was so quiet," the 18-year-old Virtue said. "We have to remember that with this program, that's a good thing. We put 100 percent of our souls into it."

Like the French couple, the Canadians' secret may be longevity. At their tender ages, they have skated together an astounding 11 years, more than half of their lives.

"Tessa and I are very fortunate, because our homes are ten minutes apart," Moir said. "We skated at the same rink; our first coach was my aunt. Our connection helps us every day. We can really motivate each other and push each other's buttons. There's no limit to what we can do. We can always work harder. We're still young, still learning every day."

European bronze medalists Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski of Russia had an electric performance to the "Night on Bald Mountain" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Spectacular lifts highlighted their frenetic choreography, but several of their footwork passages were a bit sloppy, and Novitski slipped during their circular steps.

Although fourth in free dance, Russians held on to the bronze by a slim .26-point margin.

"It was good but not perfect," Khoklova said. "There were some small mistakes and the level of our circle [steps] was only three. Maybe we were too emotional today."

In a major surprise, five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto finished off of the world podium for the first time since 2004.

Widely expected to challenge for the gold, the Americans played catch up all week after Belbin's uncharacteristic tumble in the Argentine Tango compulsory dance.

Although they placed third this evening with a clean, inspired outing of their free dance to a selection of Chopin melodies, it was not enough to overcome the 5.71-point deficit they created in the opening round.

"It was hard to get our heads back into it after that fall in the compulsory," the 26-year-old Agosto said. "But we had a great original and free dance, and it's just another experience for us."

The Americans, who train side-by-side with the Canadians in Canton, Mich. under coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, had warning signs early on when their younger teammates tallied higher scores than they at the beginning of the fall Grand Prix series.

"We've certainly anticipated this for Tessa and Scott for a long time," the 23-year-old Belbin said. "We've expected them to be one of our main rivals for years. We see how hard they work every day and they certainly deserve it."

With 103.29 points, Belbin and Agosto placed third in the free and climbed from fifth after the original to fourth overall. Together with Meryl Davis and Charlie White's sixth place, the U.S. earned three dance spots for the 2009 Worlds.

Italian champions Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali placed fifth, their best-ever finish at worlds, with a lyrical program choreographed to music from Barbara Streisand's Yentl.

"This is not only our best worlds, it is our best competition ever," Scali said. "This season we really proved to ourselves and everybody else that we can be close to the top."

U.S. silver medalists Davis and White climbed from seventh after the original dance to sixth overall with a sterling program to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and "Eleanor's Dream."

"This was our last program of the season, so we could really skate it all out and not save up and hold anything back," White said. "We thought we held back a little in the compulsory, but we put it all out there on the ice in the [original dance] and free dance tonight."

Performing a sensual program to Corrinne Bailey Rae's bluesy version of "Since I've Been Loving You," Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre placed 14th in the free dance, but 12th overall.

Competing at their first worlds, the couple overcame adversity when Bommentre's bags -- including his skates and costumes -- were lost in transit. Although they arrived in time for the original dance, Bommentre elected to continue competing in new skates that were flown in as substitutes.

"I think we got our free dance to the emotional place we were hoping for," Navarro said. "This was the most difficult program of the week for us, given our situation."

"We're ready to go home and start training for next season," Bommentre added. "We're thinking about ways we can grow on -- and off-the ice. We're coming off a great competition here and we're on a roll."