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Ice dancers, U.S. men take center stage in Nice

Russians Ilinykh and Katsalapov hope to grab dance gold; Messing, Aaron battle for Team USA

European bronze medalists Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia are the toast of the dance field at 2012 Cup of Nice.
European bronze medalists Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia are the toast of the dance field at 2012 Cup of Nice. (Getty Images)

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By Mimi Whetstone, special to icenetwork.com
(10/24/2012) - The senior international season continues this week with 2012 Cup of Nice, in Nice, France, where a strong field of international competitors is expected to take the ice, including three of the event's reigning champions. American Keegan Messing will compete to claim gold after a bronze-medal finish at 2012 Nebelhorn Trophy, as will his surging teammate, Max Aaron. Polina Agafonova of Russia and her teammates, ice dancers Valeria Starygina and Ivan Volobuiev, hope to defend their titles at their first international event of the season.

Ladies

Agafonova, who is coached by 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov, has medaled at her last three international events. She took the bronze last year at both JGP Latvia and JGP Austria, and finished her 2011 international season with the ladies title at Cup of Nice.

Joining Agafonova in the medal hunt is her teammate, Kristina Zaseeva, who won gold last year at Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria. Zaseeva hopes to return to the podium after a fourth-place finish at JGP Croatia earlier this month. Also hoping for podium finishes are Natalia Popova of Ukraine, who finished fourth this month at Finlandia Trophy, and Ira Vannut of Belgium, who finished fourth at 2010 Cup of Nice.

Men's

Messing will take the ice with momentum after a free skate performance at Nebelhorn Trophy that included the highest-scoring element of the competition, a triple Axel-triple toe combination that netted him 14.57 points. Challenging Messing is his teammate, Aaron, who won gold last month at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City. Aaron's free skate featured a quad Salchow -- which earned 11.17 points -- and eight triple jumps, including two triple Axels.

Taking on the Americans will be Chafik Besseghier of France, who finished second at this event last year. Also hoping for medals are Jorik Hendrickx of Belgium, who finished fourth at 2011 Cup of Nice, and Zhan Bush of Russia, who finished fifth earlier this month at Finlandia Trophy.

Pairs

Since teaming up last year, Vasilisa Davankova and Andrei Deputat of Russia have yet to finish an event without a medal. They earned silver at this year's JGP Lake Placid and bronze the following month at JGP Croatia.

Joining them as medal contenders are Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov of Russia, who won silver at the 2011 JGP Final and finished fourth at Rostelecom Cup last year. Also challinging are Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise of Italy, who won bronze at both the 2012 Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf, Germany, and at the 2012 Ondrej Nepela Memorial in Bratislava, Slovakia, giving them a medal at every event since beginning their partnership in 2011.

Ice Dancing

Looking for gold in a strong ice dancing field are Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who have two Grand Prix medals to their name. Since teaming up again in 2008, Ilinykh and Katsalapov have only finished off the podium twice, earning two JGP titles in 2009, silver at the 2009 JGP Final and bronze at both Rostelecom Cup in 2010 and NHK Trophy in 2011.

Their teammates, Starygina and Volobuiev, will skate for their second consecutive Cup of Nice title after finishing their 2011 international season with a silver medal at Istanbul Cup. Contending for a possible Russian podium sweep are Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin, who have won six JGP titles together. They hope to return to the podium after a fourth-place finish last month at Nebelhorn Trophy.

Challenging the Russians will be Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland of Great Britain, who won silver at 2011 Golden Spin of Zagreb and finished fourth at 2011 Cup of China.