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Expect Heated Rivalry in Ice Dance at U.S. Nationals

It will be an ice dance war — of sorts — when that discipline enters the spotlight the second week of the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash. Reigning U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White are heading into the competition on a roll and with a lot of confidence. They have won every event they have entered this season: Nebelhorn Trophy, Rostelecom Cup, NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final.

“We live in the moment and take everything one step at a time,” said White in a USOC conference call yesterday. The call was one of a series of “Making Team USA” press calls figure skaters are taking part in this week.

“The most important thing is we want to keep our title. … We [also] want to set ourselves up for the Olympics,” White said. “We want to be way out there ahead of everyone else.”

Davis said with the 2010 Olympic Games on the horizon, it is no secret there is more pressure on this year’s U.S. Championships, which are spread over two weeks, beginning Jan. 15 (ice dance kicks off on Jan. 21). “We always train hard though, so that is no different,” she said. “[After the Grand Prix Final] we worked on upping levels on a few thing and be precise, crisp and clean.”

“We want to make sure we can say we are the best in the world,” White added.

Of course, Davis and White will have tough competition in the likes of five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto who won their nationals crowns from 2004-2008. They withdrew from last year’s U.S. Championships due to a back injury from which was Agosto recovering.

Belbin and Agosto have also won every event they entered this season. They claimed gold at Cup of China and Skate America to earn a spot at the Grand Prix Final. They withdrew when Belbin required surgery to remove an infected wisdom tooth. “I took a week off after the surgery. That is pretty standard,” Belbin said in a conference call prior to Davis and White’s teleconference.

“It is hard to say if it was good or bad,” Belbin said in response to a question asking if missing the event was a blessing in disguise as it gave the team a chance to work on the choreography of their programs. “We are just looking forward to competing.”

Belbin and Agosto didn’t feel experienced enough with the programs in their Grand Prix events to give their best performances, according to Belbin. In particular, they have worked on their free dance which is set to Giulio Caccini’s “Ave Maria” performed by Sumi Jo and “Amen" from Gioachino Rossini’s “Stabat Mater.”

“We need to keep a higher energy level throughout the program so it doesn’t dip out in the middle when the music slows down,” Belbin said. “We are happy with the progress we have made.”

Agosto said he, Belbin and Natalia Linichuk went through a stack of some 5,000 CDs to find music for the program. “We all stopped [when we heard that version of “Ava Maria”]. We knew it was special and we had not heard anything like it before,” he said. “It has a lot of feeling and a very dynamic aspect to it.”

Belbin and Agosto are the most decorated ice dancers in U.S. figure skating history. Along with their stash of gold from the U.S. Championships, they have four World medals and the 2006 Olympic silver medal. They have medaled at every event at which they've contested but one — the 2008 World Championships where they placed fourth.

After that season they switched coaches, going from Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Canton, Mich. to Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov in Aston, Pa.

In Michigan, Davis and White were their training mates. “We are very proud of them,” Belbin said. “We are also very anxious to compete against them. I think it is excellent [what they have done this season] and what we need going into the Olympics. We will be going full, all-out.”

Agosto agreed. “This period is very exciting [in U.S. ice dance],” he said. “The top teams are skating so well and dominating. It is rewarding and it is great to be a part of it and see the young talent that is coming up.”

However, when it comes to the Olympic Games, Belbin was quick to point out that she did not think this season’s Grand Prix Final was a good gauge of what to expect in Vancouver. “So many of the top teams did not compete at the Grand Prix Final,” she explained. “It will be a whole new ball game [at the Olympic Games].”

The friendly rivalry between the two U.S. teams is something the press focused on in yesterday’s conference calls, but White noted that in the past two seasons, the two teams actually have not competed against each other very much. “They (Belbin and Agosto) withdrew from the Grand Prix Final the last two years and U.S. nationals last season,” White said. “It is a strange rivalry [because of that fact]. … We do really support each other though.”

Davis said going into the 2010 U.S. Championships as the favorites has changed her mindset. “It is different not being the underdogs,” she said. “We are going in a different position than we usually do. We are just going to make sure we are as prepared as possible.”

White added: “If we get out here and skate our best, our skating well do the talking.”

Currently was has people talking is Davis and White’s Indian-themed original dance. A copy of the duo’s performance in Russia to selections from Devdas was posted on YouTube and has gone viral, garnering 224,426 views to date. Many of the views have originated in India, something both skaters find gratifying.

Davis and White worked with off-ice Indian expert Anuja Rajendra to perfect their movements. “It is really exciting, taking on a program like this and then getting such positive feedback,” White said. “It is incredible for a figure skating video to get so many hits. They usually top out at 10,000.”

Davis added: “It is pretty cool. It has mostly been watched in India.”

Meanwhile, expect the action in Spokane to get pretty hot when the ice dancers hit center stage.