'Hail to the Victors' for the U.S. ice dancing Olympic lineup!

January, 24, 2010

SPOKANE, Wash. -- As the three U.S. ice dancing teams bound for the 2010 Olympics skated out to take their places on the podium at the national championships, the public address system played musical excerpts from their programs.

It might have been more appropriate to blast "Hail to the Victors" instead. Gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White and bronze medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates are Michigan natives who are all enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

And the silver medal team of Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, competing in what they anticipate will be their final nationals, has a Michigan connection as well. The tandem trained at the same Canton, Mich., club as Davis and White until the spring of 2008, when they decamped for Pennsylvania after a disappointing fourth-place finish at the World Championships.

Davis and White are coached by Russians Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, who have a lot to do with the fact that the U.S. is now an ice dancing superpower. Dapper and soft-spoken, Shpilband coached the first American team to rise to international prominence in the 1990s, Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow. Zoueva choreographed programs for the Russian couple who were peerless in their time, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov.

Punsalan and Swallow served as pied pipers for the next generation of Americans, and Belbin and Agosto, who won their Olympic medal under Shpilband and Zoueva's tutelage, are the overlap between eras. At a press conference after the original dance program, Samuelson admitted they were "the first team I idolized," amusing Belbin, 25, and Agosto, 27, no end. Time flies in ice dancing.

In a scenario that would have been unthinkable a few Olympics ago, Vancouver could see an all-North American podium. Davis/White, this year's Grand Prix finals champions, and Belbin/Agosto, the defending '06 silver medalists, will go in as favorites along with Canadian champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train -- guess where? -- in Michigan, under the same roof as Davis and White.

Davis and White's win confirmed a changing of the guard at the top of the U.S. hierarchy that was in the works all season. Belbin and Agosto, with the Olympic medal and five U.S. titles in their trophy case, deliberately played down the head-to-head competition with Davis and White, which they lost for the first time. Davis and White, not surprisingly, felt differently.

"It's really a testament to our training and everything we've put into our skating over the last 13 years," White said. "To come out at nationals and beat such an amazing team with the credentials that they have, especially leading to the Olympics, we're going to take that and run with it."

Davis said the possibility of an Olympic berth "wasn't something we really allowed ourselves to accept until this week," although the critical mass certainly was moving in that direction. The two gained tremendously in style and prestige points this season with their distinctive original dance set to Indian music, and managed to take a much more familiar soundtrack, "Phantom of the Opera," and make it their own in the free dance.

Shpilband was initially reluctant to use the music, fearing it had been over-exposed. His 2009 world junior champions, Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, had just performed a winning program to different excerpts from the same show. But Zoueva talked him into it, and then talked Davis and White into doing a dramatic, innovative lift halfway through the program when choreography sometimes takes a nap.

The daring maneuver involves White skating backwards, hoisting Davis up and over his shoulder and then balancing on one skate while bending the other at a 45-degree angle. Davis then gently rests one foot on his back and the other on the back of White's calf -- while he's still going backwards, mind you. The two practiced it for weeks with a chair as a crutch. Zoueva said White wears padding on his legs during practice, but not in performance. "He has some bruises," she said.

The lift doesn't have a name yet, although Zoueva said she favors "the Phantom."

Bates and Samuelson admitted they had not expected to be in this position so soon. "We didn't think 2010 was within the realm of possibility," said Bates, who shares an off-campus apartment in Ann Arbor with White and two other skaters. "The Olympics is kind of an abstract word to us. It's a cliché to say you're speechless, but it's hard to come up with adjectives." Samuelson -- an ebullient Debra Messing look-alike -- chattered excitedly about the 2014 and 2018 Winter Games before Bates reminded her how far in the future that really was.

There were tears, but no regrets for fourth-place finishers Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, who finished their free dance -- and, in all likelihood, their competitive career -- to the U2 song "One" to an emotional ovation from a crowd that knew how much was on the line for them.

"I think we're going to look back on that and say we left everything out there," Bommentre said as both fought for composure. "I think if we hadn't skated the way we skated, and we'd been cautious, we would have had those what-ifs."

Bonnie D. Ford

ESPN Senior Writer



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