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Belbin, Agosto ready to savor Olympic experience

Team could skate last competition in Vancouver

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto say they're excited to participate in the Opening Ceremonies.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto say they're excited to participate in the Opening Ceremonies. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(02/09/2010) - Often times, figure skaters will tell reporters that they are in a competition for the experience. The end result, they will say, doesn't matter.

Tanith Belbin is following that party line, but there's little doubt that she's going to have an experience in Vancouver all right. After all, she's planning on staying in the Olympic Village with Johnny Weir as her roommate.

"Yeah...'' Belbin said, trying to hold back her laughter, "it will be different.''

Weir, the enigmatic skater on and off the ice, is starring in his own reality TV series titled "Be Good Johnny Weir,'' which began airing on the Sundance Channel Jan. 18. Not many other Olympians can say they've had this experience.

Will she be a co-star?

"I don't think I could avoid it,'' Belbin said.

A U.S. Figure Skating official said the skating competitors, coaches and officials have one floor in the Olympic Village. Everyone put in their rooming requests to the team leaders.

The experience, as they say, should be one like no other. Weir called Belbin the other day to inform her of some packages that he has shipped to Vancouver.

"He said he already sent a box of decorations, curtains and rugs and some other things for the room,'' Belbin said. "He also called and told me he's bringing supplies for our hair.''

Suffice it to say, Belbin will remember her trip to Vancouver for years to come.

As entertaining as Belbin's time portends to be with Weir in the next couple of weeks, Belbin is also certain to have her share of memories with her longtime partner on the ice, Ben Agosto. The most accomplished U.S. ice dancing team has been skating together for almost a dozen years and plans to culminate its skating career at these Games.

"Ideally, I'd like to close the book in Vancouver and feel satisfied,'' Belbin said.

Neither she nor Agosto are ruling out the possibility of competing at the World Championships, set for March 22-28, oddly enough in Torino, where the couple earned a silver medal in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

"It depends on how we feel,'' she said.

Belbin and Agosto head to Vancouver on Thursday, but already, they are beginning to feel the magnitude of the end of their competitive skating days together. In a sport where partnerships tend to break up faster than Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show gig, Belbin and Agosto have pretty much endured everything possible. They learned the basics together and overcame injuries and citizenship snafus. They even had an act of Congress help them achieve their Olympic dreams.

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Spokane, Wash., the couple took note of seeing various friends and fans and even tried to savor the pressure-packed practices.

"I didn't expect to feel as emotional as I did at nationals,'' Agosto said. "It was very bittersweet. I was at a practice and suddenly I realized, 'This is my last practice at nationals.' I thought about how so many fans have come to support us, and we gained so much from them, and we won't have that same connection with skating fans. It kind of struck me then.''

That's part of the reason why they decided to partake in as much as they can at these Olympic Games. They plan to be at the Opening Ceremony and probably will be spectators at other Olympic events following their competition.

"Definitely the Opening Ceremony was really important us,'' Belbin said. "It was exactly how we imagined it when we were there in 2006, and we want that experience again. For us, we know how excited we are going to be and then we know we can refocus and practice after that.''

What will be different about this Olympic experience is that Belbin and Agosto are not entering these Games as the top American team. Although they captured five U.S. titles and five world medals (including the silver medal at the 2009 World Championships), they are fully aware that they are the underdogs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White, with whom Belbin and Agosto formerly trained in Detroit, have emerged as America's top team and are the reigning national champions.

When Belbin and Agosto competed at nationals last month, they placed second to Davis and White, marking the first time since 2004 that they had not stood on the top of the medal podium at the U.S. Championships.

"It definitely was a different view than being on top,'' Agosto said. "But we were in great company.''

The main goal at nationals was to secure a spot on the Olympic team, and they achieved that.

As they've said, it's about the experience.

That's not to say that Belbin and Agosto have ruled themselves out of the gold-medal hunt -- far from it.

As of this past week, they were still driving hard at practices, and their coaches, Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanosov, weren't letting up a bit.

"I can't say Natalia's keeping her cool,'' Belbin said. "She definitely is trying to bring out the very last drop of effort and keeps pushing us.''

Additionally, the team has opted to switch to different costumes for their free dance, going for something that Belbin calls more "authentic" made by a Russian costume designer in New York City.

The couple didn't even stop for a snowstorm. Belbin and Agosto were supposed to perform in an Olympic send-off show at their training rink in Aston, Pa., last Saturday, but a blizzard dumped several feet of snow throughout the mid-Atlantic region that the event was postponed to Sunday.

Nearly 700 tickets had been sold for the event, and although the snow kept many of those ticket holders at home, the three big-name teams from the rink, Belbin and Agosto, reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, all turned out to perform their free dance routines.

"The three of us came out for a six-minute warm-up, just like it will be at the Olympics and then we skated our programs,'' Agosto said. "It was very much that [competitive] feeling.''

As strong as Belbin and Agosto have been over the years, they are not the top-rated ice dancing team at their own rink, let alone the gold-medal favorites.

In its Olympic preview edition, Sports Illustrated predicted the ice dancing medal winners all would come from North America, an interesting political gamble considering no North American team has ever won the Olympic gold medal in the sport. Only two non-Russian (or Soviet/Unified Team) ice dancing couples have captured an Olympic ice dancing gold medal since the sport was introduced to the Games in 1976.

Belbin had not seen Sports Illustrated's picks yet, but when told that three North American teams were chosen, she quipped, "And I bet we're on the bottom of that list.''

She was correct: Davis and White were picked for the gold and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were predicted to take the silver.

"I know it sounds cliché, but I have enjoyed the process,'' Belbin said. "The difference has been in my attitude. I have found some sense of satisfaction of myself, and with my confidence. I am happy and proud of myself.

"I definitely want the gold, but I'm sort of taking myself off the hook. But if the marks don't show it, I know I'm at my best. I'm a lot happier this year than I was last year. I'm having the most fun I've ever had and I stopped isolating myself and stopped focusing on that one spot. I realized that I win competitions but that didn't make me happy. I want to realize my full potential.''

Added Agosto: "I hate to sound cliché but I'm taking a Zen approach. I would love to say that we were the clear front-runners, and we would just breeze on through. But I started to develop of theory about this and I believe the only chance we have to win it is to stop focusing on that goal.''

And gold medal or no gold medal, one thing is certain: Belbin and Agosto, no doubt, will have quite an experience in Vancouver.

And in Belbin's case, stay tuned. Literally.