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White-Davis signal changing of guard in ice dance

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Changes of the guard happen generationally, not seasonally, in ice dancing. Teams that are on top tend to stay on top, especially in an Olympic year. But yesterday a changing of the guard occurred in Spokane at the U.S. National Championships, as Meryl Davis, 23, and Charlie White, 22, defeated five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto to win their second straight U.S. title.

Belbin and Agosto missed this competition last year due to injuries, but they recovered in time to win silver at the 2009 World Championships, an event at which Davis and White finished fourth. So Belbin, 25, and Agosto, 28, still had reason to believe they were the team to beat. But this has been a breakout season for Davis and White, who train in Detroit with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. They have won the every competition they've entered since 2009 Worlds, including the prestigious Grand Prix finals.

Still, they had never beaten Belbin and Agosto in head-to-head competition. Olympic silver medalists in Torino, the most decorated U.S. ice dancers ever, Belbin and Agosto have said this is probably their last U.S. Nationals. A win would have reestablished their U.S. dominance to the international skating community and tabbed them as the team to watch in Vancouver. A loss ... and the message to the rest of the world was that the baton had been passed. Adding to the intrigue: the four of them used to train together in Detroit before Belbin and Agosto switched coaches in 2008, they are all good friends, and White and Belbin are rumored to be romantically involved, though neither will confirm or deny it. The rumor mill also painted these tantalizing tidbits: a) White had dumped Belbin ten days ago; b) Belbin had dumped White ten days ago; c) neither had dumped the other: they were seen walking hand in hand in Spokane on Thursday.

It was enough to send a hard-working reporter's mind into a twizzle. Better, if less interesting, to focus on what was happening on the ice, which was a good, old-fashioned thumping of the five-time champs, who quickly began painting the competition as a final "practice" before Vancouver. Davis and White won all three portions of the competition (the compulsory dance, the original dance, and the free dance), finishing with 222.29 points -- a U.S. record -- to 218.51 points for Belbin and Agosto. The margin would have been greater except for a one-point deduction the winners incurred in their free dance for a lift that exceeded the maximum time allowed in the air. Not that the audience noticed or minded. The spectacular move saw Davis somersault onto White's back and stand on the back of his leg with both arms extended -- Look, Ma, no hands! -- while he glided to the haunting organ music from Phantom of the Opera. Michigan natives -- White is from Dearborn, Davis from Royal Oak -- the duo have skated together since 1997, winning at every level. And while their synchronization is near perfect, it is the quality of White's skating that makes even the likes of Brian Boitano sit up and take notice. "His stroking may be the best I've ever seen," the 1988 gold medalist said while discussing White at a recent practice.

Whether White and Davis can maintain the momentum from their triumphant Grand Prix season to become the first U.S. ice dance team to win a gold medal at the Olympics remains to be seen, but this win at the U.S. championships was an important step in that direction. Falls and miscues are rare in ice dancing, so buzz and word of mouth go further than they do in other disciplines. White and Davis' original dance, in which they skate in Bollywood-inspired Indian folk costumes, has generated a lot of positive buzz in the ice dancing community, and their Phantom of the Opera free skate is intricate and technically demanding while still being accessible and audience friendly. It is real ice dancing as opposed to over-the-top theater. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Belbin and Agosto's free dance, in which Agosto, skating to an assortment of religious choral music, is bizarrely outfitted like a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator, replete with white sequined suit and plunging neckline. But, as Belbin succinctly said in the costume's defense: "It's ice dancing." Translation: anything goes.

The takeaway from this U.S. Nationals is that both these teams are superb, and both have legitimate chances to medal in Vancouver. But while Belbin and Agosto called their second place finish "something we can build on", Davis and White made it clear that they have already done all the construction they need with their programs and this was a championship they wanted to win. They don't intend to stop there. Looking ahead to Vancouver, White said, "We're going for gold."

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