2008 U.S. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS – SAINT PAUL, MN
Senior Event Preview by Katie Weigel
On January 23 in St. Paul, MN, the quest to be the 2008 U.S. dance champion begins with the first phase of the competition – the Yankee Polka compulsory dance. The following afternoon, the skaters will compete the Country/Folk original dance, which can consist of any piece of music or elements that fit within the guidelines of a country/folk dance. The free dance portion of the competition will be held on January 26, resulting in the crowning of the 2008 U.S. dance champions.
Reigning U.S. champions Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto are hoping to capture their fifth consecutive title in St. Paul. Belbin & Agosto had a strong showing this year at the Grand Prix Series, winning both Skate America and Cup of China. They also skated well at the Grand Prix Final in Sendai, Japan, finishing second to Russia’s Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin. Always strong in the original dance, it has been their lyrical free dance to piano selections by Chopin that has held them in contention for gold at their Grand Prix events this year. Belbin & Agosto have the highest personal best score (195.11) of the season among U.S. dance teams, making them the odds-on favorites heading into the competition. During a recent press interview, Belbin & Agosto were asked what it is about their skating this year that has been different from other years.
“I think this season is a culmination of the ten years we have been skating together,” Agosto said. “This year we were really able to take time to look at our basic skating skills. We became stronger and faster. We improved our line and focused on unison.”
Belbin & Agosto are also enjoying skating together as adults rather than teenagers.
“This year we have been able to really focus on our goals and to approach the season as mature adults,” Belbin said.
Last year’s silver medalists, Melissa Gregory & Denis Petukhov, have withdrawn from the competition due to injury. During the warm-up at 2007 Skate Canada, Gregory & Petukhov suffered a horrible fall during a rotational lift and have been out of competition for the duration of this season.
“The loss of practice time at this crucial juncture, combined with my unsuccessful efforts to rehabilitate my injured knee, have left us unable to compete at the highest level,” Petukhov said. “Our doctor has strongly recommended that we take the time to heal so that we may be back at 100 percent for next season.”
Meryl Davis & Charlie White, last year’s bronze medalists, have been skating together for 11 years, longer than any currently competing ice dance team in the U.S. The withdrawal of Gregory & Petukhov will put Davis & White into a position to challenge Belbin & Agosto for the national title. Davis & White captured their first Grand Prix medal this season, winning the bronze at Trophee Eric Bompard. They also finished fourth this season at Skate America in Reading. Their original dance to “Kalinka” and free dance to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Eleanor’s Dream” have become stronger with each performance this season. Davis & White are in an excellent position to make the world team and to challenge the reigning national champions for the 2008 title.
With Belbin & Agosto and Davis & White likely taking the top two spots on the podium, up-and-coming teams will be competing for the bronze medal and a chance to represent the U.S. at the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. One of the teams in the running for the bronze is Kimberly Navarro & Brent Bommentre. They finished fourth at last year’s national championships and placed sixth at both Skate America and NHK Trophy. Always a fan favorite, Navarro & Bommentre are hoping for their first trip to the World Championships. Their dynamic original dance to traditional African folk songs has been a highlight for them and their fans this season.
One team finally has the opportunity to compete for a spot on the world and Four Continents teams. Jennifer Wester & Daniil Barantsev have been skating together since 2003 but until this season were unable to compete internationally due to Barantsev not being released for competition by the Russian Federation. The team made their much-anticipated international debut with a bang and a win at Nebelhorn Trophy in September. For their original dance, Wester & Barantsev are skating to a medley of country folk tunes, including “Cotton Eyed Joe,” fiddle music, and a country waltz paying tribute to Wester’s home state of Texas.. At the Midwest Sectional last November they won each portion of the competition, highlighted by a light and expressive free dance to “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates are making their senior national debut this year in St. Paul. They were the U.S. junior champions last year and were minutes away from a World Junior Championship medal until an accident in their free dance forced them to withdraw and sent Samuelson into surgery for a severely sliced hand. Fully recovered now, they came in first at Junior Grand Prix Lake Placid and JGP Austria this fall. They also finished second at the 2007 JPG Final in Gdansk, Poland. Samuelson & Bates have been on the rise this year and could be a challenge for third place in St. Paul. At the JGP Final they achieved a season best score of 171.85, which is the third best U.S. dance team score of the season behind Belbin & Agosto and Davis & White. Keeping in mind that junior free dances are shorter and have less elements with which to gain points, Samuelson & Bates have clearly made a good impression on the judges, and it will be interesting to see how they are scored head-to-head against the other senior U.S. teams.
Another team that will make the jump to senior in St. Paul is Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt. Kriengkrairut & Giulietti-Schmitt, who won bronze last year in Spokane as juniors, debuted internationally this fall as seniors at Nebelhorn Trophy, placing eighth and followed that up with their first Grand Prix event, Cup of Russia, placing 10th. Training alongside Samuelson & Bates, Kriengkrairut & Giulietti-Schmitt are reminded on a daily basis who and what they are up against.
The final team making the move to seniors is second-year partners Clare Farrell & Chase Fishpaw. They placed first at the 2008 Eastern Sectional despite Farrell competing with a broken thumb. Farrell should be fully recovered in time to compete in St. Paul, but it remains to be seen how training adaptations to work with her cast will affect their preparation.
Charlotte Maxwell & Nick Traxler will be looking to move up from their eighth place finish at the 2007 U.S. Championships. Now approaching their three-year anniversary of partnering, “MaxTrax” had a strong showing in Lake Placid, coming in second in both the free dance and compulsories and fourth in the OD. This earned them their first Team U.S.A. assignment at the Golden Spin of Zagreb, where they placed eighth. Their original dance pays homage to Maxwell’s Seminole Creek heritage and should prove to be a highlight of the competition in St. Paul.
Mimi Whetstone & Chris Obzansky are competing in their second season together. They placed 10th last year in Spokane. This year the blond duo has two upbeat programs to show the St. Paul audience. For the original dance, they are skating to the traditional Hungarian “Czardas” folk dance, and for the free dance they have chosen music entitled, “Should I Let Myself Go” and “Reet Petite.”
Four new teams will be making their U.S. Championships debut together.
Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles swept the events in Lake Placid, earning them a trip to Golden Spin of Zagreb, where they finished sixth. Both partners have medalled at nationals as both novice and juniors. Gilles took gold in both with Trina Pratt, while Summersett and Elliot Pennington snagged a silver and bronze. The team comes to St. Paul with years of successful competitive experience, and they hope to continue this together.
Mauri Gustafson & Joel Dear teamed up last spring and placed second to Wester & Barantsev at the 2008 Midwest Sectional this November. Their hip-hop free dance is full of energy and enthusiasm and is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Marsha Snyder, a world competitor in synchro with highly successful Miami University, teamed up with Peter Fischl, and the duo placed second at the Eastern Sectional competition. They split their training between Pittsburgh, Penn., where Fischl is a student at Carnegie Mellon, and Detroit, Mich., when they work with Brandon Forsyth.
The final new team, Stacy Kim & Jonathan Harris, teamed up last summer and finished third at the 2008 Midwest Sectional. They haven’t competed much as a team, so St. Paul will be a big test for the duo from Texas.