2009 U.S. National Championships – Cleveland, OH

Five-time U.S. champions and world and Olympic medalists face off against the newly-crowned Grand Prix Final medalists. Two teams, one crown. Ice dance battles like this do not happen every year, and the stage was set for a dramatic showdown.

But it was not to be.

Ben Agosto is battling a serious back injury and he & Tanith Belbin had to withdraw from the competition. Now, instead of going for a record sixth U.S. dance title, Agosto works to recover in the hope of competing at the World Figure Skating Championships at home in Los Angeles — assuming he and Belbin are named to the World Team. With the reigning champions out, Davis & White are poised to take a golden step in Cleveland after winning bronze in 2007 and silver in 2008. 

Until this season, both Davis & White and Belbin & Agosto trained in Canton, Mich., under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. Despite their rivalry and Belbin & Agosto’s move last summer, the teams are friends, so there is little doubt that Davis & White will be disappointed that the battle is postponed.

Unless the Ghost of Cup of Russia OD makes an appearance, Davis & White will likely take the title. As the longest-running ice dance partnership in the U.S., they have proven that success can be achieved by hard work and staying together, and they would be worthy successors to the crown. They have medaled at all levels of U.S. ice dancing, including victories at the intermediate and  junior levels. In the battle of the roommates, don’t discount the second-longest partnership at this competition, as Evan Bates (White’s college roommate) and partner Emily Samuelson have never missed the podium at the U.S. Championships.

Samuelson & Bates, the 2008 U.S. pewter medalists and World Junior Champions, had a stellar debut on the Grand Prix Series, finishing fourth at Skate America and winning the bronze medal at NHK Trophy. No other American team in recent years has medaled in their first year in the Grand Prix, so Samuelson & Bates are clearly making some noise internationally. They are technically strong and their program components scores continue to grow. Last year, a fall in the free dance squashed their hopes of a bronze medal. This year, if they are able to compete without making mistakes, they will be a strong candidate for the silver medal.

The remainder of the field is arguably deeper than any other U.S. Championships dance field in the past ten years. The roster of 15 teams features national and international medalists and competitors, including World Junior champions, Grand Prix Series medalists, and multi-time national champions at the various levels. While the current season’s placements and scores can help separate the teams, rankings still have a habit of changing once everyone is together at the same event. Every team will have to bring their best to Cleveland.

2008 bronze medalists Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre used an unconventional approach by selecting non-ice dance choreographers to craft this season’s programs. After some disappointment on the Grand Prix, the team has had a little less than two months to continue the development of their programs. The success of their risky decision to use choreographers accustomed to floors and shoes — not ice and skates — will be determined by their performances this week. They will look to earn a second trip to the World Championships, but will face fierce opposition from the teams that were ranked below them last year.

Fifth in 2008, Jennifer Wester & Daniil Barantsev fought through illness and injury to compete in their first season on the Grand Prix Series. Their chance to skate in the major international events did not come until their sixth season together, because Barantsev had to sit out several years because the Russian Federation refused to release him. With grit and determination, they gave inspiring performances at their events this season. If they are back at full strength, they could certainly be in the mix for the medals after just missing the podium last year.

Broadmoor’s Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles also competed internationally, winning bronze at Nebelhorn Trophy and finishing seventh at  Skate America, their Grand Prix debut. Their theatrical and acrobatic free dance has been well received this season, and their technical marks — coupled with stronger program components — could put them near the top. Summersett & Gilles were sixth last year.

The 2008 U.S. junior champions, Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell, will make their senior debut in Cleveland. They returned to the JGP this season in fine form, winning gold in Mexico and South Africa and silver at the JGP Final. They are back on track after missing most of last season due to injury. The Hubbells’ programs highlight their power and leg line; and although they are similar in height, they are able to pull off the high-level elements. The team is one of the three teams that coaches Yasa Netchaeva and Iouri Tchesnitchenko will have in this field.

The Eastern Sectional Championships marked the competitive debut for 2005 World Junior champion Morgan Matthews with her new partner, Leif Gislason. Previously, Gislason was an international competitor for Canada with Lauren Senft. Matthews & Gislason scored well at Eastern Sectionals, and although their free dance had mistakes, they won the title. Their lifts and choreography are more abstract than what many of the other teams are putting on the ice. Although they teamed up in 2007, this is their first competitive season. Their partnership generated a lot of buzz because they did not choose a country to represent until last autumn.

The other teams returning to the event at the senior level are: Charlotte Maxwell & Nick Traxler (seventh in 2008), 2009 Pacific Coast champions Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt (ninth in 2008), and 2009 Eastern silver medalists Clare Farrell & Chase Fishpaw (11 th in 2008).

Several new partnerships have also qualified. Lauren Corry & Alexander Lorello won bronze at Eastern Sectionals to advance to Cleveland and Trina Pratt & Chris Obzansky were second at Pacific Coast Sectionals in a very close event. Emma Cyders & Ievgenii Krasniak qualified fourth from the Pacific Coast section. Kellene Ratko & Jonathan Harris are from the Midwestern section (which did not have a senior dance event) and will make their competitive debut in Cleveland.

Jessica Perino & William Avila, 2009 Pacific Coast bronze medalists, are back on the scene after missing last season due to injury. They were 12 th at the junior level in 2007.