"New look" for Belbin and Agosto in Everett

Promise better fundamentals, more dramatic free dance -- and glittery costumes

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(10/20/2008) - A fluky slip on a compulsory dance at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships just may have propelled Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto to new heights.

"To train your butts off, with everyone around you saying, 'You can do it, this is your year' -- and within the first 30 seconds of stepping on the world ice you fall and its over -- that was just a really good lesson," Belbin said.

"We took a step back and really took out the magnifying class and looked at what we had been doing," Agosto added. "I think we had been feeling slightly dissatisfied with our skating leading up to that point, but that was definitely a slap in the face; that was a wake-up call."

The five-time U.S. champions and reigning Olympic silver medalists placed fourth, the first time they had finished off the world podium since 2005. In April, they left long-time coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva and their homes in Michigan to work with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov at the IceWorks Skating Complex in Aston, Pa.

Since then, it's been a whirlwind of reinvention, with the focus on stroking exercises, edging sessions and compulsory dances.

"We've been working to break down the fundamentals of skating that we've been practicing for ten years," Agosto said. "We've been skating one way, and our new coaches have been trying to get us to learn new technique. It's been a lot of work but it's been very exciting."

Teamed by Shpilband in 1998, competitive success came quickly to Belbin and Agosto. After winning two medals at junior worlds they debuted at senior worlds in 2001, placing 17th. They won their first national title in 2004 and their first world medal, silver, in 2005. After placing second to Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostamarov at the 2006 Olympics, it seemed a world title was well within their grasp. But they sometimes seemed to lack the speed and power of other top teams, and often had to make up ground after the compulsories.

Since moving to Aston, Belbin and Agosto have attacked these relative shortcomings, delaying work on their new programs until their coaches were satisfied with their improvement.

"Our coaches said, 'Trust us, you need this; we can't just cover up your weaknesses with choreography any more, we have to fix them,'" Belbin acknowledged with disarming honesty.

"They said, 'If you can get stronger now and build on it all the way up to the [2010] Olympics, you will actually have a chance of being unbeatable.' Without that, we're just trying to get lucky like we always have. And this time we really need to fix the problems so we can stand out there on our own two feet confidently and really feel like we are the best skaters."

For their free dance, the couple turned to the world of opera, and will perform to selections from Puccini's "Tosca."

"We wanted to [go in] a stronger, more passionate direction, that I think is ideal for Natalia's dramatic choreography," Belbin explained. "I hope we can do it justice. I'm sure we will by the end of the year."

1980 Olympic champions Linichuk and Karponossov, the married couple who also coached two-time Olympic champions Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov and, more recently, two-time world champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, are confident the Americans can put a new twist on the oft-used classic.

"At first, I said "Tosca" was too overdone, but Natalia promised no one will do it like we will," Belbin said. "I believe her. I think altogether the package will be quite memorable for us, and I hope one of our best free dances ever."

The most problematic part of the move to Aston would potentially be sharing the ice with 2008 European champions Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia, who joined Linichuk's group just weeks after the Americans. But even that has turned out to be a big plus.

"Oksana and Max are great competitors," Agosto said. "It's a little bit of a competition every day. It reminds us that if they're working really hard, we had better be working even harder. It's good motivation; we get along well, and it's not a problem in that regard."

"I read a couple of interviews Oksana and Max have given since their move, and what they're saying is just exactly what we've been going through," Belbin added. "Missing home, the difficulty relocating, adjusting to new coaches. I think our entire careers have been very similar. We've really stayed close for almost a decade."

Domnina and Shabalin won junior worlds in 2003 and placed 15th at senior worlds that same season. Through the years, they placed well behind Belbin and Agosto at worlds until 2007, when they were fifth to the Americans' third. They defeated Belbin and Agosto at the Grand Prix Final in late 2007 before Shabalin's knee injuries forced their withdrawal from worlds.

"You can be competitive without being negative," insisted Belbin. "It's a positive energy absolutely every day."

No new look would be complete without a costume makeover, and Belbin said fans can look forward to some changes there as well.

"Last year, we strove for simplicity; this year, we want dramatic effect," she said. "We have lines and cuts and stones; they're very loud and bright and sparkly, and obviously that means [boyfriend] Evan [Lysacek] is going to hate them."