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Davis, White win first U.S. dance title with ease

With Belbin, Agosto injured, Michigan couple is in class by themselves

Meryl Davis and Charlie White's moving free dance clinched the senior dance title.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White's moving free dance clinched the senior dance title. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/24/2009) - Meryl Davis and Charlie White breezed to their first U.S. senior ice dancing title with a rapturous free dance that put them more than 20 points ahead of the field.

"I think we really went out there and left it all on the ice," White said of their performance to selections from Camille Saint-Saens. "It was nice to nail both the elements and the character of the dance."

The couple, who trains in Igor Shpilband's school in Canton, Mich., gained Level 4s for seven out of nine elements, including their combination lift. They faltered slightly on their twizzle sequence, dropping it to a Level 2, but had positive Grades of Execution for every element.

The couple earned 99.82 points for the performance, ending the event with 201.68 points overall.

"It's a challenging program, and this was the best performance [of it], I think, this year," said Shpilband, who has coached the couple since 2005.

Much of the discussion this week has centered on the absence of five-time U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who withdrew from the U.S. Championships due to Agosto's back injury. Shpilband coached the team for more than a decade, until they left Canton to train under Natalia Linichuk in Aston, Pa., last spring.

Today, he downplayed their absence, saying his new top U.S. team was ready to take on all comers.

"I don't think it would change anything if Tanith and Ben were here; I wish they could have come. Meryl and Charlie were ready to go and compete," he said.

Asked what the key difference was between the two teams, Shpilband replied, "Meryl and Charlie are a very athletic team, in [terms of] of their quickness and the quality of their skating. Overall, they are more equal in skating ability and skating skills."

Davis and White, 22 and 21, respectively, have skated together since 1997 and are the longest-running dance or pair team in the U.S. They believe their longevity is the key to their success.

"Luck is a big part of it," Davis said. "Charlie and I grew up 10 minutes down the road from each other. We still live in the houses we were born in, and our parents are best friends. The main asset we have now is having been together so long, we know each other so well, and that only helps make us stronger as athletes and partners."

"I would say we have the same commitment," added White. "A lot of times it doesn't happen like that. To be able to come in and have the same work ethic as your partner and not have to bicker about little things you shouldn't have to is a real privilege."

World junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, second throughout the competition, claimed the silver medal with a solid free dance, marred only by a messy combination spin. They ended the competition with 181.64 points.

"We're really happy with the performance. We had one mistake on one element, but the rest was really good," Bates said. "The dance spin got screwed up, and it won't happen again."

"We're going to go home and improve ourselves and keep working; there's always room for improvement," Samuelson added.

Like Davis and White, and countless other dance teams here, Samuelson and Bates train in Michigan, some 12 miles away from Canton in Ann Arbor, under Yuri Chesnichenko and Yaroslava Nechaeva.

"We're so fortunate to have so many teams in the U.S., and so many in Michigan in particular," Shpilband said. "Yuri is a great friend of mine, and he's doing such a great job."

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre repeated as bronze medalists, taking third in the free dance with their re-tooled routine to music from Fatboy Slim. Together with their compulsory and original dance scores, they earned 176.30 points.

"This [free dance] we're doing, I think, is pretty tough," Bommentre, 24, said. "Up until nationals, since NHK [Trophy], we had seven weeks, and we changed a whole bunch of stuff -- both of the step sequences, lots of transitions and the spin. We really took a hard look at the program."

2008 U.S. junior champions Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, competing here as seniors for the first time, were fourth throughout all three phases of the competition and won the pewter medal.