Belbin, Agosto take lead in ice dancing


ST. LOUIS -- Appropriately enough, newly minted U.S. citizen Tanith Belbin and partner Ben Agosto yesterday began their march to the Olympic ice dancing competition to "Yankee Polka."

Before a scant crowd at the Savvis Center, the two-time national champions and silver medalists at the 2005 world championships scored a 41.57 in the compulsory dance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Later, they added to their lead during the original dance segment with a score of 66.32, for a total of 107.89.

The couple is overwhelmingly favored to win this event and to contend for the country's first Olympic ice dancing medal since 1976, the year the event was added to the Winter Games.

In second place this year as last are Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, with a total score after two segments of 94.13. Petukhov became a U.S. citizen last February.

Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin, winners at the 2005 junior world championships, are in third place with 86.79. Zavozin, also Russian, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Dec. 30.

With an assist from Congress, Belbin became a citizen on New Year's Eve, making her eligible to compete with Agosto for one of three spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Her parents, Canadian citizens, moved to Detroit in 1998 so their daughter could skate with Agosto.

"This year, in particular we feel the fans went through something together with us," said Belbin. "The phone calls they made and letters that they wrote were invaluable in the entire process, so we definitely feel a deeper connection with them."

Ice dancing concludes Friday with free dance.

Meanwhile, two-time world championship silver medalist Sasha Cohen is fighting the flu. She became ill Friday night and skipped practice until yesterday, when she skated a light routine. The women's competition begins tomorrow and concludes Saturday night.

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