New coaches, new outlook for Belbin and Agosto
MEDIA, Pa. -- If there's anything Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have been in need of lately, it's a GPS.
After a decade-long stay in Detroit, the most celebrated ice dancing team in U.S. history decided to hit the road and train in a small town outside of Philadelphia: Aston, Pa.
The 2006 Olympic silver medalists -- once guests on "The Tonight Show" and the toast of the skating world -- found themselves apart from family. Her parents had lived in Detroit but now live in Georgia; his parents remain in Detroit. They're away from their close-knit group of friends, and they're away from the comforts of their old rink. One of the four rinks in Aston is Olympic-sized, so even the bigger ice surface has been new territory.
"Sometimes when I'm not at the rink I feel a little lost," said Belbin, who found some solace while sipping a familiar soy milk coffee drink at a Starbucks in a town about five miles from the rink. "I haven't just changed my coaches, I've left my roots. But coming to the rink gives me purpose and clarity."
And after a spring and summer of shuttling moving boxes from Detroit to Philadelphia, the couple is now headed to Everett, Wash., for its first major skating competition of the season, Skate America. It will be there that Belbin and Agosto hope to prove their move was the right choice.
"I think before we made this move we were unaware of the limitations of where our talents could go," Belbin said. "I think Skate America will give us credibility."
Belbin and Agosto had trained in suburban Detroit for 10 years, starting back when they were competing at the junior level. For all of those years, they worked with the most successful U.S. ice dancing coach, Igor Shpilband, and in the later years with Marina Zoueva, as well. For much of that time, they had achieved a type of success that no American ice dancing team had ever believed was possible. And they did so in a sport in which judging shenanigans had been routine and teams rarely moved up in the international standings.
But Belbin and Agosto managed to break through those barriers. Not only had they captured five national titles, but they also reached the world podium three times and won an Olympic silver medal, the highest finish ever for a U.S. team since the sport entered the Olympics in 1976.
Yet they decided to leave the comforts of home and move to Pennsylvania to train with 1980 Olympic ice dancing champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov.
So the question is: Why did they leave?
The main reason is that Belbin and Agosto, the favorites entering the 2008 World Championships in March, failed to finish on the podium for the first time in four years. Belbin suffered a costly fall in the compulsory round and the duo finished fourth overall.
It was one fall, but for the illustrious team it was a fall from grace.
"To train your butts off, with everyone around you saying, 'You can do it. This is your year,' and within the first 30 seconds of stepping on the world ice, you fall and it's over, that was just a really good lesson," Belbin said last week in a national teleconference.
Combine that with the fact that they had been training alongside another top U.S. team -- Meryl Davis and Charlie White (they were second behind Belbin and Agosto at nationals and placed sixth at worlds) and Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who were the 2008 world silver medalists.
Belbin and Agosto were no longer No. 1 in their own training facility let alone No. 1 in the world.
"We really thought last year we had settled in, and despite the fall at worlds we had set ourselves up as contenders," Belbin said. "But one of the greatest challenges we faced was that everyone's seen us before. There were new and young teams that were all new to everyone and we had been together for so long. We needed to move to feel young again.
"And if we were going to move, this year was the deadline."
That's because the 2009 World Championships will be held on U.S. soil in Los Angeles and the Olympics are just around the corner in 2010 in Vancouver.
"We haven't had the top spot and that's what we've wanted," Belbin said. "I know we'll get it. I just hope to do it sooner rather than later."
Making things more difficult was the fact that they were home from the world championships in Sweden for just one day before they had to begin performing with the Smucker's Stars on Ice tour. The whole time they were on the road entertaining audiences, they were thinking about their future.
"We took a step back and really took out the magnifying glass and looked at what we had been doing," Agosto said. "I think we had been feeling slightly dissatisfied with our skating leading up to that point, but that was definitely a slap in the face. That was a wake-up call."
Ultimately, after exploring their few available coaching opportunities in the United States -- there are only a handful of elite ice dancing coaches in America -- they wound up teaming with Linichuk and Karponosov. The former champions who later married and started coaching in the United States are best known for having guided Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov to Olympic gold in 1994 and 1998.
It's not unusual for skaters to make coaching changes, especially after disappointing performances at competitions, but for a team like Belbin and Agosto, which has been a fixture in Detroit, news of the move was striking.
Those fans who believe that Belbin and Agosto had been contemplating this move long before then should talk to Agosto's landlord. He had just signed a three-year lease on a house in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Luckily, he let me out and didn't charge me an arm and leg for it," Agosto said.
Also fortunate for Agosto was that his longtime girlfriend was able to relocate with him since she is taking college classes online.
For Belbin's part, leaving a close-knit group of girlfriends, which includes Meryl Davis, wasn't an easy choice, either. She misses those girls' night outings and constantly is in touch with Davis, 2007 U.S. pairs champion skater Brooke Castile and Canadian ice dancer Lauren Senft.
"They still call me every week," Belbin said. "Reluctantly, I have to set my roots here. But I came here to skate, not to make friends. I will be here for 18 months and it will be over before I know it."
So will 2010 be the end of the road?
"It will be a stopping point," Belbin said. "But we'll stop and figure out what we're going to do. Even back in 2002, 2010 was always our goal."
The 2010 milestone sets a definitive deadline for the couple.
"It gives us a kind of all-or-nothing approach," Agosto said. "Why wouldn't we put every ounce of our energy into it? This is our opportunity to accomplish something really special and we really want to pull it together."
But even as they begin to ponder the end of their competitive careers, they are also starting over. With Linichuk and Karponosov, Belbin and Agosto both said they feel like beginners again. Their new coaches began harping on basic steps, not what you'd expect Olympic medalists to be working on, but something that has been one of the team's major criticisms over the years. They have the charisma but they need to solidify the fundamentals.
In case they didn't already know this, their coaches made the point abundantly blunt.
Said Belbin: "Our coaches said, 'Trust us, you need this. We can't just cover up your weaknesses with choreography any more. We have to fix them.'
"Without doing that," she added, "we'd be just trying to get lucky like we always have. We needed to fix the problems so that we can stand on our two feet confidently on the ice, and really feel that we are the best skaters out there."
In just a short amount of time, they began to notice improvements in their overall speed and skill -- especially in the compulsory dance portion, which has been the team's nemesis.
"I used to always hate compulsories," Agosto said. "It was like pulling teeth. I wouldn't say that I like them now, but I have learned a new respect for them and I see them now as a vehicle to improve my overall skating."
Their new coaches also wanted a new look for them in the free dance, which has also been problematic for Belbin and Agosto lately. Ever since they won the Olympic silver in Torino, Belbin and Agosto couldn't quite develop a free dance that dazzled the judges. Their best attempt, many insiders say, was their routine to Chopin last season, but it wasn't enough to make them world champions.
This season, they will be skating to "Tosca," an opera by Giacomo Puccini filled with dramatic music. The music, with its passion and fight, is a lot like Belbin and Agosto themselves, trying to claw their way back to the top.
"We really do feel like we've earned the right to do drama," Belbin said. "It's going to be a work in progress, and I think we will progress a lot with it by worlds."
It's also the music that Belbin's boyfriend, two-time U.S. champion Evan Lysacek, competed to last season, although that was a coincidence. Linichuk was the one who suggested the piece when the couple listened to multiple recordings in their new coaches' home.
"I called Evan and said, 'Don't be mad. We're doing Tosca,'" Belbin said.
He wasn't upset about that decision, nor will he be upset if it helps Belbin and Agosto reach the top. With their new coaches standing by them rink side this weekend, Belbin and Agosto will find out if many of their recent decisions were the right ones.
As Belbin said: "I think we'll be ready."
Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.