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Davis, White nab early lead over Belbin, Agosto

Defending U.S. champs take CD by slim margin

Meryl Davis and Charlie White lead the field after the compulsory dance in Spokane.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White lead the field after the compulsory dance in Spokane. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2010) - Meryl Davis and Charlie White fired the winning opening salvo in their face-off with Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, dancing to a .40-point lead with a glorious Golden Waltz.

Both teams performed fluid, speedy dances with patterns so large the ladies' skirts caressed the boards. But the judges liked the defending U.S. champions' routine a shade better, giving them the nod in both the technical and program components scores.

It was a hard-fought victory for the young couple, and the first time they have defeated Belbin and Agosto in any segment of competition at the U.S. Championships.

"It's very important to finish first here; we want to go in to the Olympics as the top U.S. team," White, 22, said.

"We've worked on this dance harder than we've ever worked on any compulsory," Davis, 23, added.

Davis and White entered this segment at a disadvantage, having performed the Tango Romantica at their three fall events.

Their win at the Grand Prix Final in December did not include a compulsory, generally considered the weakest link in their repertoire.

"Tanith and Ben had a good performance, but Meryl and Charlie outshone them," Igor Shpilband, who coaches the leaders in Canton, Mich., with Marina Zoueva, said.

"Everyone in the world is watching U.S. nationals. It's probably the most intense competition, with two teams probably ranking in the top three [in the world]. It's very important to go in to the Olympics as U.S. champions."

Since returning from the Grand Prix Final in December, Davis and White have spent much of their time drilling the Golden Waltz.

"This is exactly what we work on for four weeks, just compulsory, compulsory, compulsory," Zoueva said. "That was the strategy. All of their competitions before, always the compulsory was their lowest score. At the Olympics, the programs have to be equal. They cannot start the competition in a lower place."

The main goal, added Zoueva, was to "make the patterns bigger. That's something very objective the judges can see, how they curve, how deep they are in the corners."

Belbin and Agosto, who have won this event five times, earned 45.02 points, surpassing their previous high score of 39.28 at Skate America. But today, it wasn't enough.

"It's a good thing we're not coming here and thinking, 'Let's just skate clean,'" Belbin, 25, said.

"We have to go all out to get to the top....there's no more time, no more practice until the Olympics."

The reigning Olympic and world silver medalists, who did not compete here last season due to Agosto's back injury, are in the unusual position of being underdogs to Davis and White.

"Having [Davis and White] really come into their own is really exciting," Agosto said. "It's also very motivating; it pushes us to work equally hard."

The other competition within the competition, the battle for the third and final U.S. Olympic ice dance spot, is shaping up to be a two-team race, with U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre edging U.S. silver medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates by .24.

"It felt like a great skate today," Bommentre, 25, said. "It was a great way to start the competition."

"It looked effortless; they couldn't have done it better," Robbie Kaine, Navarro and Bommentre's coach, said. "They took ownership of the dance and brought it home."

The team takes 37.60 points into the original dance.

Samuelson and Bates also had a fine showing, earning 37.36 for a Golden Waltz far smoother than the one they performed at Trophee Eric Bompard early this season.

"This is our first year doing the Golden Waltz," Bates, 20, said. "All the turns are so close and fast, you have to be really precise on your feet. Once you get the hang of it, though, it's a lot of fun."

Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell are fifth with 34.33 points.

The brother-and-sister team recently moved to Detroit Skating Club to train under a team including Pasquale Camerlengo, Anjelica Krylova, Elizabeth Punsalan and Natalia Annenko.

"We've been working a lot on our partnership skills, and strength and power, so that we look more like a senior team," Keiffer, 21, said.

2009 world junior champions Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein are sixth with 34.12 points.

"It was a little shaky in the first half, but we pulled together and focused on the presentation," Chock, 17, said.