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Delobel, Schoenfelder surge to No. 1 ranking

French team's world title vaults them to the top

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder show off their new hardware at worlds.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder show off their new hardware at worlds. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(03/26/2008) - Thanks to their gold medal at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder vaulted themselves up two spots in icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings and took over the No. 1 ranking. The French team won the compulsory dance and did not give up the lead all week, adding credibility to their surge to the forefront of the ice dancing landscape.

Four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the ice dancing pack all year. Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, thanks to their past record, had been No. 1, but they relinquished their throne after a misstep in the compulsory dance in Sweden. Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin gave up their hopes of the top spot by withdrawing before the event. And young Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir solidified their place in this elite group by winning the free dance at worlds and grabbing the silver medal.

Delobel and Schoenfelder hinted at their future success at the 2008 European Championships, where they won the compulsory and original dances. The judges said that Domnina and Shabalin's free dance was good enough to take the title, but most in attendance disagreed. When you throw in their two Grand Prix gold medals this year, you certainly have the resumé of a team worthy of the No. 1 ranking.

Belbin and Agosto had a great 2007-08 season with two Grand Prix gold medals. But with a silver at the Grand Prix Final in December, they were in dire need of a win at worlds against their rivals to hold their ranking. They did, however, finish ahead of Delobel and Schoenfelder at the GP Final, their only head-to-head match-up with the French team before worlds. In Sweden, however, Belbin's fall during the Argentine Tango opened the door for the rest of the field, and the couple could not recover to reach the podium. The top four ice dancing teams are really too close to rank, but based on recent results, Belbin and Agosto would probably not hold the No. 2 ranking that they have now.

Instead, Domnina and Shabalin would most likely place higher than their current spot -- No. 3. The Russians withdrew from the world championships because of Shabalin's ongoing knee injuries. But thanks to a hot streak that included gold at the GP Final and at Europeans, they would have acquired "favorite" status if they had competed. The only hesitation would have been the controversy over their European gold medal. If they can recover to full strength, they will again seriously challenge for the top spot next year.

The last of the top four are Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. After finishing fourth at the GP Final, they have been on a hot streak, winning gold at Canadian nationals and Four Continents. Then, winning the free skate was a nice finishing touch on their season. Virtue and Moir rank fourth right now, and since they have not yet defeated any of the top four, except for finishing ahead of Belbin and Agosto at worlds, that's probably the right spot for them at the moment. However, Virtue, 18, and Moir, 20, are much younger than their rivals, so the future seems to lie with them.

Russia's second team, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, are close on the heels of the top four. With their world bronze medals, they too finished ahead of Belbin and Agosto in Sweden. And at Europeans, their performance, particularly their free skate, was the most impressive of all, probably deserving of more than the bronze medal that they received. Their lifts are spectacular, and their high-paced skating always draws the audience into their performances. If they can improve their footwork as well, they will join ice dancing's elite class.

After Khokhlova and Novitski is a small group that is a level behind. Italian champions Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali's fifth-place showing at worlds solidified their place at No. 6 in the rankings. That performance was easily their most impressive of the year.

The other teams in the same class as Faiella and Scali are Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. and Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France. Davis and White's free dance pushed them past the French team into sixth place at worlds. It also positioned them at No. 7 in the rankings, with Pechalat and Bourzat one behind.

The U.S. is the only country with three teams in the top 10. The third American duo is Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, the 2008 world junior champions. It is hard to place exactly where these two should sit in the standings. They were certainly ahead of the competition this year at the junior level, despite finishing behind Maria Monko and Ilia Tkachenko at the Junior Grand Prix Final. But their only senior competition was at the U.S. championships, where they finished fourth behind Belbin and Agosto, Davis and White, and Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre. Navarro and Bommentre finished 12th at worlds and moved up two spots, to No. 15, in the rankings. Those numbers make Samuelson and Bates' placement a little high. But the senior teams are certainly not looking forward to the addition of another promising ice dance couple from the United States joining their ranks. Samuelson and Bates will certainly have an impact when they make that jump.

As for Navarro and Bommentre, they made huge strides in 2007-08, earning their first international medal (bronze) at the Four Continents. And as mentioned above, several of the teams ranked ahead of them are junior teams that are untested against the world's best. Right now, Navarro and Bommentre are probably better than their 15th-place standing.

Rounding out the top 10 are Great Britain's Sinead Kerr and John Kerr. Their eighth-place finish at worlds was a career-best, and it also helped them solidify their place in the top 10 in the rankings.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy and Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia each moved up one place, to 11th and 12th, respectively. They are followed by two junior Russian teams -- Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov (13th) and Monko and Tkachenko (14th).

The final mover of the week were Israel's brother-and-sister combo, Alexandra Zaretski and Roman Zaretski. The team that finished a career-best ninth at worlds moved up two places overall, to No. 17. With the back of the rankings very bunched up, the Zaretskis can easily be considered in the same class as Cappellini and Lanotte, Bobrova and Soloviev, and Navarro and Bommentre.

The junior teams -- Samuelson and Bates, Gorshkova and Butikov, and Monko and Tkachenko -- are joined by Canada's Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier and America's Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell in the top 20. Crone and Poirier are at No. 16, and the Hubbells, another brother-and-sister team, are No. 20. This is a very strong set of young dancers, and they all have the potential to defend and improve their ranking next year.

The final teams in the top 20 are Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov of the U.S. (18th), who were top 10-caliber before getting injured last November, and Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost of France (19th).