Delobel and Schoenfelder win ice dance title as Americans miss podium
GOTEBORG, Sweden -- Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder are leaving with the gold medal. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are leaving empty-handed.
Delobel and Schoenfelder won their first ice dance title at the World Figure Skating Championships on Friday, 18 years after the French pair began skating together, while Belbin and Agosto failed to win a medal for the first time since 2004. The Olympic silver medalists and five-time U.S. champions had a rare fall in the compulsories, and finished a mere 0.26 points short of the medals podium.
Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train with Belbin and Agosto in Detroit, won the silver and Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski took the bronze.
"This competition was a big mind game for us," Belbin said.
Added Agosto, "I'm not going to lie, it was pretty difficult to come back after the fall. It was shocking."
Earlier Friday, Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle and American Johnny Weir took the lead in the men's competition with strong short programs, while the last two title winners fumbled or fell. Weir's finish was some rare good news this week for the Americans, who have been shut out of the medals so far.
Belbin and Agosto were considered the favorites in dance after Grand Prix final and European champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin had to withdraw because of his injury. When the Americans fell in compulsories -- something that almost never happens -- it left the door wide open for the French, and they took advantage of it.
They failed to win the free dance yet again, but they'd built up a big enough lead in the compulsories and original dance that it didn't matter. They finished with an overall score of 212.94 points.
"We had a long, long way to win this medal for us. It is the first world medal and it's a gold -- so it's amazing," Delobel said.
Delobel and Schoenfelder aren't the only couple that has staying power. Virtue and Moir are just 18 and 20, respectively, but they've already been together for 11 years. They met when they skating at the same rink, and his aunt, their skating teacher, paired them up.
"[Virtue] had a little bit of a crush on me and didn't want to give it up for 11 years," Moir joked.
Turning serious, Moir said their familiarity is critical to their success. They won the free dance with a beautifully choreographed ode to summer love.
"Our connection together definitely helps us every day," he said. "We know how to push each others' buttons and get through the tough times. We really draw on that on days like today."
In the men's competition, Buttle skated impeccably, landing a gorgeous triple flip-triple toe loop combination and scoring top levels for all of his spins. With a total score of 82.10, the Canadian is 1.31 points ahead of Weir, the three-time U.S. champion. Japan's Daisuke Takahashi, the defending silver medalist and the most consistent of the top men this year, is a close third at 80.49.
Two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel was fifth and defending champ Brian Joubert was sixth, though the French federation is appealing a 1-point deduction for having vocals in his music.
"I felt so comfortable out there. I felt like I couldn't make a mistake," said Buttle, who was slowed by a back injury last season and is trying to regain the form that won him the bronze at the Turin Olympics.
Weir's triple lutz-triple toe combination was sky high, and his footwork and spins got the crowd behind him. Ever the showman, Weir knew he'd done well, giving his fists a little shake at his sides when he finished.
"I feel very good. I think I've done everything I can this season," said Weir, who actually tied Evan Lysacek at the U.S. championships in January but was bumped down to second on the tiebreak.
Stephen Carriere, last year's junior world champion, is in 11th and Jeremy Abbott is 14th. If they hold or better those positions in Friday's long program, the United States will keep their three spots at next year's all-important world championships in Los Angeles.
Results at the 2009 worlds determine how many entries countries get at the Vancouver Olympics, and the Americans have already lost one of their spots in the women's competition next year. The U.S. ice dancers will have three 2009 worlds spots, with up-and-coming Meryl Davis and Charlie White finishing sixth.
With Lysacek dropping out last week because of a fluke injury, there was even more pressure on Weir to deliver. But Weir wasn't paying any attention to it.
"No. It's not the most important thing for me. Even if there are only two spots, as long as one is mine, that's OK," he said.
Takahashi, a favorite for the gold after winning the Four Continents title last month, appeared as a goth black swan in a crowd-pleasing hip-hop version of "Swan Lake" that features moves ready for any Tokyo club floor. His artistic scores were slightly higher than the leaders.
Takahashi had a nice triple flip-triple toe combination, but he touched down on his triple axel.
European champion Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic is in fourth, once again finishing ahead of the last two world champions. Lambiel, the Swiss star who won in 2005 and '06, is fifth after touching down on two jumps. Joubert, who has missed part of the season with a strength-sapping virus, fell on a triple lutz.
But Joubert was more dismayed with the deduction he received for the vocals in his program to "All For You," by Sebastien Damiani. Skaters are forbidden from having words in their music, but the sounds in "All for You" are more like haunting notes of scale over the music. Joubert used the same program at Skate Canada and the European championships, and wasn't penalized or even warned.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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