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Domnina, Shabalin lead after CD at the world champs

Belbin, Agosto fight through injury to take second place in L.A.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won the compulsory dance round at worlds.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won the compulsory dance round at worlds. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/24/2009) - They may have been down, but they're far from out.

At the European championships in January, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin withdrew after a surprising fall re-injured one of Shabalin's troublesome knees in the Finnstep, the controversial compulsory dance at the event.

Just two weeks ago, the 2008 European champions begged off their rink's world championships send-off show while Shabalin visited his doctor for treatment.

There were no worries this afternoon though. The Russians stepped out to a 1.12-point lead at the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles with a smooth, controlled Paso Doble that earned 40.77 points.

"My knee feels okay; it is getting better," Shabalin said. "I have liked this dance since I was a child. It's one of my favorites."

The Paso, based on the entry music of bullfighters, has been around for more than 70 years and presents less of a challenge to top-flight ice dancers than the fast-paced, brand new Finnstep.

Asked whether he'll fare as well with the rest of the competition, Shabalin shrugged: "Sure I will. What else should I say?"

Five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, also returning from injury, placed second with 39.65 points in their first-ever outing of the dance.

"We've never competed the Paso before, not even in juniors," Agosto said. "It's ferocious. I feel it suits us perfectly, given what we want to show at this competition."

The couple, who withdrew from the ISU Grand Prix Final in December and missed the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships due to Agosto's back injury, say they are throwing caution to the wind this week.

"Now is the time to showcase our new abilities," Belbin said. "We're frustrated we haven't been able to do so until now. We have to think, 'It's our [title] to lose.'

"Last year, I really wanted it, but deep, deep down I didn't feel I could do it. [Our new coaches] Natalia [Linichuk] and Gennadi [Karponossov] have given us that confidence."

They've already passed the first test. To ensure it would have three dance entries here, U.S. Figure Skating flew first alternates Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre to L.A., just in case Agosto's herniated disc flared up.

"I'm practicing full out," Agosto said. "I'm as strong as I could be. I do have to take more time to warm up and cool down though."

For nearly a decade, Belbin and Agosto trained in Michigan under Igor Shpilband, who guided them to five U.S. titles and the 2006 Olympic silver medal. After placing fourth at worlds last season -- the first time since 2004 they had finished off the podium -- they changed coaches, moving to Aston, Pa., to train with 1980 Olympic champions Linichuk and Karponossov. A few weeks later, Domnina and Shabalin joined the group.

"I can't say we're close friends. We respect them, we like them and we hope they like us," Shabalin said.

Reigning world silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are third after a speedy Paso, which one of their coaches, Marina Zoueva, thought should have ranked first.

"They were the best -- by style, by step, by partner and expression," Zoueva, who trains the team with Shpilband, said. "A lot of other professionals here have been telling me the same."

"The two bigger events are still to come, so we'll be climbing that ladder," Moir said. "We had a ton of fun. Our goal was to go out there and sell it. What else can you ask for?"

The Canadian champions enter the original dance with 39.37 points.

Newly crowned U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who also train under Shpilband and Zoueva, placed fourth with 37.73 points, thanks to a slightly lower program components score than the other top teams.

"It's within our control to skate our best. What happens with the other teams and judges is out of our hands," White said.

Reigning world bronze medalists Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski are fifth with 37.34 points.

U.S. bronze medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, who won the 2008 world junior title, are 13th with 32.51 points.

"We're the third U.S. team; there's really no pressure on us," Bates said. "Tanith and Ben and Meryl and Charlie, are going to take care of business and get three spots for the U.S. next year. We're here for the experience."

"The talent of all the teams here is just incredible," Samuelson added. "There are teams you've admired for years, and all of a sudden we're here competing against them."