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Belbin, Agosto say they are ready for worlds

Couple counts Agosto's injury as "blessing in disguise"

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are confident about their chances at worlds.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are confident about their chances at worlds. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/12/2009) - Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto accentuated the positive during their pre-worlds media teleconference Wednesday.

Not only has Agosto recovered from a back injury, allowing the five-time U.S. ice dance champions to compete at the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles in 10 days, but they might just be better than ever, they said.

That wasn't the case at the Grand Prix Final in December, where Agosto's back pain forced the couple to withdraw after the original dance.

"I was diagnosed with a herniated disk in my lower back and also a bulging disk," he said.

"We weren't able to trace it to any traumatic incident; it just started getting worse and worse until finally it was really bad."

Agosto was off the ice for three weeks, forcing the couple to miss the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships and a chance at a sixth consecutive title. In their absence, their former training mates Meryl Davis and Charlie White easily won their first U.S. crown.

Now, after rest, therapy and several injections, Agosto said he is fully fit.

"I [started with] baby steps, stroking," he explained. "From there on it's been gradual adding, adding, walking the fine line between getting the work done that needs to be accomplished, but not injuring myself again.

"At this point I don't really feel that I'm tentative; I feel I can go into my elements with the same vigor."

Belbin went even further, not only is she ready to compete, she's improved her technique.

"I didn't take a day off while he was recovering. I trained the day after we came back from the Grand Prix Final," she said. "It gave me great opportunity to work on my extension, my control . . . maybe this had been a blessing in disguise. It's always hard to find time to work on basic technique by yourself."

Agosto said his partner's regime has really paid off.

"It was a shock for me when I came back to skate with Tanith, it was like trying to skate with a race horse," he laughed. "I felt like a rodeo cowboy, a little bit. I just had to hold on."

The couple, who won an Olympic silver medal in 2006 and three world medals, trained for almost a decade under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Canton, Mich. After slipping to fourth place at worlds last season, they packed their bags for Aston, Penn., to work with 1980 Olympic ice dance champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov.

Early season results were respectable but not spectacular. Prior to Agosto's injury, they placed second to world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder at Skate America, then second again to new training mates Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at Cup of China.

Since arriving in Aston, the skaters, along with their coaches, have assessed their weaknesses and done everything they can to improve. Now, after the enforced lay-off, they hope improved speed and edge quality will lead to a return to the world podium.

"[Our new coaches'] biggest goal for us was just to improve our power and flow across the ice," Belbin said. "That's what they thought was most lacking.

"They thought we were expending energy but not using it correctly. They did a lot of work with us, leg work, pressing into the ice more, so we were not scrambling around the ice as much."

Belbin, in particular, has been frank discussing her relative weaknesses, saying, "My extension and leg lines, I know I need to work on a lot more." In her partner's absence, she upped the ante with Pilates and ballet classes on alternating days and even practiced compulsory dances by herself.

"I finally realized how powerful I can be in order to not hold Ben back," she said.

The couple wasn't simply slotted on to the U.S. world team, which also includes Davis and White as well as 2008 world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. A panel of judges did an initial monitoring session at their rink in late February, and members of U.S. Figure Skating's international selection committee are in Aston today to see all three programs they will perform in Los Angeles: a Paso Doble compulsory; an original dance to 1930s-style Broadway music; and free dance to selections from Tosca.

"We will run through all of our programs and they will kind of put a stamp on it," Belbin explained. "We know we're ready. . . In this case they need to see all three [programs] in same day and that's no problem."

"For us its good practice, because we were not able to finish the Grand Prix Final and we had to sit out nationals," Agosto added. "It's good for us to have people there and some pressure where we have to perform and do our jobs."

Agosto emphasized no special provisions have been made to compensate for his injury.

"Surprisingly, almost every bit of our programs is the same. We made a lot of tweaks in footwork in the never-ending quest [to get the] highest levels possible. We did make one change to a lift, partially because of my back and partially because we felt it was a questionable position for me anyway."

The ice dance picture at worlds is clouded. Delobel and Schoenfelder missed the European Championships due to Delobel's shoulder injury and may not compete. Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were out of action last fall due to injuries to Virtue's legs, while Domnina and Shabalin struggle with Shabalin's ongoing knee problems.

"I think this entire year has just been, I don't know, a giant gamble," Belbin said. "No one knows how anyone will skate with the injuries and setbacks. I don't think there has been a clear leader this season and the podium is wide open.

"We just want to come out and show these programs now that we've had time to get comfortable with them. At the beginning of the year everything was so new to us."