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Domnina, Shabalin return world dance title to Russia

Belbin, Agosto second; Davis, White a strong fourth

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won their first worlds medal of any color on Friday at the world championships.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won their first worlds medal of any color on Friday at the world championships. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/28/2009) - After all the talk of injuries, coaching changes and the rise of North American ice dancing, the result was familiar: the Russians won.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin took home their first world medal -- gold -- with a free dance to Spartacus that emphasized speed, carriage and Domnina's impeccable lines, qualities their countrymen have used to win 27 world ice dance titles since 1970.

The couple broke a three-year drought; the last Russian victory came in 2005. Their 100.85 points added to their compulsory and original dance results gave them 206.30 overall, some 1.22 points above training mates Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

"Actually we [are] so tired, because we gave all our power emotionally on the ice," Shabalin said. "I think I can tell you how I feel in two days."

Many in the sport thought Shabalin's career was over after his multiple knee surgeries forced the couple to withdraw from last year's world championships, as well as the European championships in January.

"Now I feel great, of course," he said. "Actually, yeah, it's been hurting a little bit this week. [I could push through], because it's such an amazing arena, audience and city.

"If I wouldn't believe in [myself], I wouldn't have won. So, I always believe every day, and that's why we became champions."

Last spring, Domnina and Shabalin left their homes in Moscow and longtime coach, Alexei Gorshkov, to train under 1980 Russian Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov in Aston, Pa.

"The time had come that we [had to] do something new in our skating, and we think Natalia and Gennadi are the best coaches in the world. Our former coach [Gorshkov] did a lot for us, but we needed a new motivation," Shabalin said at the time.

Today, of course, they hailed the decision.

"We met very good people here, and I can say the American people are very hard working and very open people, and they make us to be more open," he said.

Like their rivals, Belbin and Agosto were looking for a fresh start last spring. A disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2008 Worlds prompted the reigning Olympic silver medalists to leave longtime coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva and re-settle in Aston.

They lost training time when Agosto suffered a back injury, forcing the team to withdraw from both the Grand Prix Final and the AT&T U.S. Championships. Tonight, the five-time U.S. champions showed off a more dramatic, mature style in their free dance, set to Puccini's Tosca.

"First of all, it just feels amazing to be here," Agosto said. "The fact that we've pushed through is a great experience for us. I think we learned a lot about ourselves, and this is going to make us stronger skaters and stronger people. I'm really happy with the result; we're moving up again."

In this sport of inches, few could tell what made the difference between the two teams.

"It could have been the twizzle we got downgraded [to Level 3] on; it could have been a lot of things," Belbin said. "The Russians skated clean. I don't think they had a glaring error.

"We're completely aware nothing is going to be handed to us. We have to be phenomenal to win gold. I think maybe we have to struggle to do that [more] than other countries. I don't think we even had an American judge on any of the three panels here."

Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won silver last season, settled for bronze this time around after a free dance to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" that featured the most innovative lifts of the night.

"Tonight was all about us," Moir said. "We just wanted to go out and skate, not for what the judges thought, but what we thought. We skated the best we could, and we're happy about that."

The Canadians missed the Grand Prix season due to Virtue's leg injuries. Tonight, the skater said she hoped those problems were in the past.

"I felt way stronger and was able to push through to the end. I wasn't even focused on my legs. Mentally, it's such a treat to not have that constantly running in my mind."

A chorus of boos greeted U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White's fourth-place finish, just four hundredths of a point off the podium. Performing to Samson et Delila, the young skaters had the most intricate footwork and choreography of the night, but their third-place finish in the free dance was not enough for a medal.

"I think that was probably the best performance I've ever felt," Davis said. "We've been working really hard, and it was hard to get it in shape at first because it was such a demanding program."

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France, who train in Moscow under former world ice dance champion Alexander Zhulin, were fifth.

2008 world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates were ninth in the free dance, lifting them to 11th place overall at their first worlds.

"I'm elated, relieved; I don't know what else describes it," Samuelson said. "The most important thing is that we skated three great performances."

"Hopefully we demonstrated this week the strong qualities we have, and [the judges] realize we belong at the senior world championships," Bates added.