SENIOR

Only a few years ago, senior dance at the U.S. Championships seemed almost an afterthought with only seven or eight teams competing. American dancers rarely medalled at international events and casual skating fans wanted to know where the triple Axels and throws were.

Flash forward to 2007.

With an Olympic silver medal and a silver and bronze at the World Championships, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have brought U.S. ice dance into a whole other league. The three-time national champions went into the history books in Portland as the only skaters of any discipline to receive all 6.0s at the U.S. Championships when they performed their gypsy free dance. Michelle Kwan never got all 6’s, nor Brian Boitano or Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.

Although a gold and silver on the Grand Prix circuit would make most skaters extremely pleased, Belbin and Agosto have had a rough autumn. While their Tango original dance has been well received, a lackluster free dance to “That’s Entertainment” has even their most ardent fans worried. At the Marshalls U.S. Figure Skating Challenge, Belbin and Agosto admitted they had a problem, but were not ready to give up on their free dance quite yet. It had been their idea to use the music, and they wanted to see if it could be salvaged or if they needed to start over. A lower back injury to Agosto pulled them out of the Grand Prix Final. No word from their training base in Canton, Michigan if the reigning U.S. champs were using this opportunity to tweak the existing program or go a different route.

Perennial bridesmaids Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov have had their most successful season yet. They won a silver at Skate America and a bronze at NHK, giving them a spot at the Grand Prix Final where they finished sixth. The husband and wife duo are skating with a new confidence. They moved from being one of many with Nikolai Morozov to a more intimate environment with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanosov in Delaware, where they train alongside the reigning world champions, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski.

Most would consider the 1-2 spots in Spokane to be almost a lock. The other two steps of the podium will prove to be quite a battle.

The best showing on the Grand Prix goes to new seniors Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Davis and White have been skating together longer than any ice dancers in the U.S., a full decade. Last year they won the junior title in St. Louis and captured a bronze at the Junior World Championship. A pair of fourth place finishes at Skate Canada and NHK demonstrated the University of Michigan students are ready for prime time. They were the only dance team to receive all level 4s in a free dance this season. The main challenge for Davis and White may come from the compulsory dance. The Golden Waltz will be competed in Spokane. It is this dance that White has taken major falls on at both the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships and Skate Canada.

Neck and neck with Davis and White are Morgan Matthews and Max Zavozin. At Skate America, they took fourth overall, but were third in the free dance. They finished sixth at Cup of Russia. Together since 2001, Matthews and Zavozin were the 2005 World Junior champions and are coached by Zavozin’s mother, Elena Garanina. Matthews has had a difficult pre-season, suffering from multiple spinal fractures. During her rehabilitation, Matthews took up Bikram Yoga, which she says is responsible for her severe weight loss.

Last year’s recipients of the PSA award for Best Performance at Nationals, Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, are back for their second season together. They placed sixth at both their Grand Prix events, Skate America and Skate Canada, and their upbeat American style and “happy to be here” outlook make them fast fan favorites. Bommentre is making his eighth consecutive appearance at U.S. nationals. While their difficulty levels were not as high as some of the other skaters, an early end to their Grand Prix events has given them more than two full months to prepare for Spokane.

The wild card comes from the husband and wife team of Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev. Barantsev, a two-time World Junior champion with his former partner, Natalia Romaniuta, has not been released by the Russian Federation, so he is not able to compete internationally. Wester and Barantsev placed seventh in St. Louis and hope to move up in Spokane.

Kate Slattery and C.G. Lee had an interesting 2006. In the warm up for the original dance in St. Louis, Lee collided with another skater and was knocked to the ice. His nose was broken, and although the team was able to make it through the OD, they had to withdraw from the free dance. In the off season, Lee had reconstructive surgery. At Lake Placid, Slattery and Lee had a strong showing, placing second in the free dance and compulsory series and third in the OD. At Sectionals, however, they were upset by Elizabeth Miosi and Dmitry Ponomarev.

Miosi and Ponomarev were too old to compete as juniors this season on the international circuit, so moved up to seniors. They won the Eastern Sectional Championships en route to qualifying for Spokane. They had mixed success at Lake Placid, with the highlight being a fourth place in the original dance. Last season Miosi and Ponomarev were members of Team USA, competing in two Junior Grand Prix events. They are also coached by Elena Garanina and train with Matthews and Zavozin.

Winning the Pacific Coast Sectionals were Mimi Whetstone and Chris Obzansky, a new partnership but one with years of experience with their previous partners. They train in Canton with Igor Shpilband.

Also out of the west are Caitlin Mallory & Brent Holdburg and Charlotte Maxwell & Nick Traxler. Mallory and Holdburg opened their season with a surprise win of the free dance event in Lake Placid. As members of Team USA they placed fourth at the Karl Shafer Memorial event in Vienna. This will be Mallory and Holdburg’s fifth consecutive trip to the U.S. Championships, and they were the 2005 junior silver medallists. They are coached by Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who were the creators of the Golden Waltz compulsory dance.

Spokane will make the second appearance for Charlotte Maxwell and Nick Traxler. They are a dynamic, energetic team with expression that reaches to the last row in any arena. In Lake Placid, this translated to a bronze in the free dance. Maxwell skipped the junior level, jumping from novice to senior last season, where they placed 12th in St. Louis.

Making their senior debut are Isabel Elliman and Dmitriy Serebrenik. This duo had been together the third longest of any U.S. dance team, behind only Davis & White and Belbin & Agosto. This will be their fifth trip to nationals.

JUNIOR

Perhaps the most exciting discipline across the entire 2007 U.S. Championships will be the junior dance. Tight battles will be fought for every place on the podium, and it is anybody’s guess how the event will wind up.

Gold and silver should come down to the dynamic duos from Ann Arbor, Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell. Friends and training partners, the two teams are both coached by Iouri Tchesnitchenko and Yasa Netcheva and have been at the top of standings throughout the season.

At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, each team won the free and original dances in their group, although the Hubbells had the higher score between the two in the free and Samuelson and Bates in the original. Samuelson and Bates swept the compulsories, traditionally the weakest part of the Hubbells’ competition.

On the Junior Grand Prix circuit, Samuelson and Bates won both of their events, and the Hubbells took a gold and silver in theirs. The first time they met head-to-head for a complete competition—at the Junior Grand Prix Final last month—the Hubbells took the gold, 154.15 to Samuelson and Bates’ 151.98 silver. No dance team had ever debuted on the Junior Grand Prix circuit and taken the title that season. It is unprecedented international success.

Samuelson and Bates were the 2006 junior silver medallists in St. Louis behind Meryl Davis and Charlie White (who have moved up to senior). The Hubbells lost a close novice title after an errant foot placement in a spin cost them the gold behind Cathy Reed & Chris Reed, who have since chosen to represent Japan.

Madison and Keiffer Hubbell do not have the matchy-matchy style that many sibling skaters do. Off the ice, they are quite different, with blond Madison preferring modeling and the brunette Keiffer fascinated with reptiles. They were last year’s recipients of the Michael Weiss Scholarship. As a team, the Hubbells have been competing together for six years, winning the 2003 juvenile title and the 2004 intermediate.

Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates know something about medalling at the U.S. Championships. In fact, they have never NOT medalled. Together longer than any other junior team, the duo has captured a medal at every nationals they have competed in, highlighted by the novice gold in 2005 and the intermediate gold in 2002. Known to put on a clinic in unison in compulsory dances, the vivacious team gravitates towards programs that are very crowd-friendly. Latin is their specialty, and this year’s free dance takes full advantage of that.

The other two podium spots in Spokane should prove to be quite the battle. Two other Ann Arbor teams could take those spots. Brooke Huber and Karl Edelmann have the unusual situation that it is the lady’s age who makes them ineligible for Junior Grand Prix competition. Twenty-year old Huber is two years older than her partner. At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, the team placed third in the OD, free dance, and some of the compulsory events. At the North American Challenge Skate, they took bronze. They also won the Midwestern Sectional event to qualify for nationals.

The surprise medallists could come from the very new team of Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt. At Lake Placid, they did not perform the regular junior tract, as they were not ready with their programs having only been together a couple weeks. However, they did win gold in open compulsories. At the Pacific Coast Sectionals, Kriengkrairut and Giulietti-Schmitt were first ahead of two teams who had competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. Giulietti-Schmitt had competed on the JGP last season with former partner Mauri Gustafson.

Coach Igor Shpilband brings two teams from Canton who could certainly challenge for a spot or two on the podium. Shannon Wingle & Ryan Devereaux are in their second season together and placed fifth at novice in St. Louis. Strong placements in Lake Placid, including a second place in the OD, paved the way for two appearances on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, where they placed 6 th and 7 th.

Brianne Oswald and Buck Withrow are another new team this season. Medals in Lake Placid set them up for a JGP trip to Romania, where they placed 10 th.

The “accidental” juniors Piper Gilles and Tim McKernan, have had a surprising season. The 2005 intermediate champions, who finished 7th at novice in St. Louis, had not planned on moving up this season, their fourth as a team. After “skating up” in Lake Placid and winning silver in the junior free dance and bronze in the OD, they were assigned two junior international events. They won the NACS event as juniors and then took bronze at the JGP in Mexico City. They concluded their season with a 6 th at the JGP in Taipei and a silver at the Midwestern sectional competition to qualify for Spokane.

The East Coast of the U.S. also has multiple teams who have proven themselves worthy of a national medal. Pilar Bosley & John Corona have competed this season for Team USA at two JGP events and picked up a handful of medals in Lake Placid. They also won the Eastern Sectional Championships by more than 11 points. This will be their third nationals together, winning the pewter at novice in 2005. Last year they place an impressive 7th, a finish made even more so as Bosley was hit with severe food poisoning and could barely stand for her bow at the end of their free dance.

Another wild card from the East, Samantha Tomarchio and Nick Sinchak, have had a rough journey to Spokane. Tomarchio suffered a severe concussion over the summer that obviously hampered their training efforts. In Lake Placid they were only able to compete the compulsory dance events, but in the final, a collision with another team knocked Tomarchio on her head again and left Sinchak with a severe gash in his leg. After months of delays, the team was finally able to compete in the final JGP event of the season, where they finished 10th. Tomarchio and Sinchak are in their third season together and were the novice bronze medallists in St. Louis.

Lindsay Cohen and Evan Roberts have been together for five seasons, and this has been by far their most successful. After not qualifying for the U.S. Championships the past two years, Cohen & Roberts showed the international committee in Lake Placid they were ready to represent Team USA. They were assigned the NACS event, where they placed 5th and the JGP in Romania where they came in 8th.

Four new teams round out the junior roster. Clare Farrell and Chase Fishpaw, Amanda Loyd and Ashley Deavers, Jessica Perino & William Avila, and Rachel Siegel and Kevin Miller will all be making their first appearances together at the U.S. Championships.

NOVICE

The depth at this year’s U.S. Championships in ice dance across all three levels at nationals should make for an exceptionally exciting week in Spokane.

The competition starts out with the novice event, with a roster of twelve skaters. Only one team is returning from St. Louis, Genevieve Deutch and Alexander Lorello. Last year they finished 11th and look to move up from that this time around.

The top of the podium will most likely come down to a battle between new team Sara Bailey & Kyle Herring and “veterans” Maia & Alex Shibutani. This will be the Shibutanis third time to nationals, having won a silver at the juvenile level two years ago and taking the intermediate title last year. While the Colorado Springs-trained siblings have not competed at “Big Nationals,” they have attended the past two years as spectators/volunteers.

Although Sara Bailey has not competed at novice nationals, Kyle Herring has over the previous two years, so he knows what to expect, although in the past he has not come in as the favorite. The Shibutanis and Bailey and Herring have gone head-to-head twice this season. At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in August, the Shibutanis’ margin of victory was exactly one tenth of one point in the free dance. Over the course of the four compulsory dances, Bailey & Herring went 4-0, with a larger gap in the scores.

At the North American Challenge Skate in Vancouver, Canada later in August, once again Bailey & Herring opened up a lead in after the Compulsories, but the Shibutanis came back in the free dance. Maia and Alex took silver and Bailey and Herring bronze behind Canadians Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill. Genevieve Deutch and Alex Lorello finished in sixth and Chloe Wolf and Rhys Ainsworth were eighth.

Wolf and Ainsworth bring more experience as a team to Spokane than any other novice couple. This will be their fifth trip to nationals, the first time as novice skaters. Their best finish was fifth in two years ago at the intermediate level.

With four steps to the podium (at U.S. Championships a pewter medal is awarded for fourth place) the opportunity for hardware is there for the taking. The Pacific Coast Sectional Championships were very tight, with all four teams trading placements throughout the three dances. When it was over, only 3.25 points separated the four teams. The new pair of Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein were third in both compulsories and first in the free dance to take the gold. In Lake Placid, this duo won their group’s free dance. Elyse Matsumoto and Andrew Skillington are very new to this level of competition. Matsumoto has never competed at nationals, and Skillington’s last trip was at the 2002 juvenile championship with his previous partner. At Sectionals, they split the compulsories with Wolf and Ainsworth, and were third in the free dance for second overall. Rounding out the Pacific skaters are Anastasia Olson and Patrick Mays, another new pair. Olson competed last year with Zuerlin in St. Louis where they came in 12 th. Olson and Mays have recently switched coaches and training locations, moving from Igor Shpilband’s group in Canton, Michigan to Yasa Netchaeva and Iouri Tchesnitchenko in Ann Arbor.

Although comparing scores from different sectional championships is not an exact science, it should be noted that only three teams broke the 100 point barrier. In addition to Bailey & Herring and the Shibutanis, Isabella Cannuscio and Ian Lorello posted a mark of 105+. Isabella, who placed fifth with Herring in the novice free dance in Portland, will be making her third appearance at nationals at the novice level. This will be Ian’s first trip.

In keeping with the sibling theme, Isabella’s younger sister, Anastasia, will be making her first appearance at the novice level championships. The 2005 juvenile champion (with former partner Geoffrey Varraux) is teamed up with Dean Copely. They finished third at Easterns. The compulsories are this team’s strong point. At Lake Placid, they swept all three preliminary round dances and placed second in the super final.

Rounding out the novice competitors, the remaining three Midwestern Sectional participants bring a range of experience. Nathan Truesdell competed at nationals as a novice in Portland with former partner Brianne Oswald, while Megan Evans is brand new to the discipline of ice dancing. Michelle Pennington won the pewter last year with Brad Coulter and returns to try to better that with Cooper Johnston. The newest novice team is Michaela Cook and Jordan Cowan, who only got together in September. This will be their first time at “Big Nationals.”