teamusa.org article on Tanith and Ben

Belbin and Agosto take a bow
Brandon Penny December 03, 2010

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto put ice dance on the map for a generation of Americans. But after 12 years together, the dynamic duo has announced its retirement from competition.

The two first met in 1998. Agosto was skating in Chicago at the time and Canadian-born Belbin was living and training in Montreal. When Belbin decided she was serious about pursuing ice dance, she realized she would have to go where the most successful U.S. ice dancers were training, in Detroit under coach Igor Shpilband.

Shpilband had the perfect partner in mind for Belbin.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking because I was in Chicago and my coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, I got a call from Igor in Detroit,’ and everyone knew who he was,” Agosto said. “She said that he wanted me to move there and try out with a girl. This was my big opportunity if I wanted to take it seriously.”

Their personalities clicked right away.

“She laughed at my dumb jokes and we skated pretty well together and the coaches were excited about it. It was just a very natural thing and a week later we were both moved there permanently.”

After all this time, Agosto said Belbin still laughs at his dumb jokes.

And though the two are retired, they still have the perfect on-ice chemistry. But rather than putting together an original dance and free dance for competition, they have moved on to the professional side of the sport – skating in made-for-TV specials such as Skate for the Heart, Riverdance on Ice and Shall We Dance.

They are also full-time cast members on this season’s Smuckers Stars on Ice tour, which includes U.S. Olympians Evan Lysacek, Sasha Cohen, Todd Eldredge and Michael Weiss, as well as international skating stars Ekaterina Gordeeva, Joannie Rochette, Kurt Browning, and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

“I think that Tanith and Ben still have a lot to give to ice dance and I think the professional world is a really great area for them to do it,” said ice dancer Meryl Davis, who trained alongside Belbin and Agosto for several years in Detroit.

“They both have such strong personalities on and off the ice. Tanith is really outgoing, Ben is also very outgoing and very funny and I think they bring that to the ice and so while they were able to do the serious programs, they were also able to do the programs that required a little more energy and originality.”

Outside of skating, both Belbin and Agosto have started taking college courses. Agosto is going into sports medicine, while pursuing opportunities in his other passion – voiceover work. He is currently putting together a reel in order to get his voice out there.

“I did a voice for a video game back in 2006 and it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had, so that would be an ideal job for me,” Agosto said.

Davis’ partner, Charlie White, noted that whatever field Agosto lands himself in, he will have no problem succeeding.

“He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known – so funny and so nice,” White said. “I’m so thankful for having gotten to know him and compete against him and continue to be his friend because he is just one of the nicest guys and figure skating is really lucky to have him.”

Meanwhile, Belbin is going after a degree in communications so that she can go into broadcasting. Only a few months out from their retirement and she has had no shortage of job offers. She has been calling this season’s Grand Prix events for NBC/Universal’s broadcasts and recently started her role as color commentator on the brand-new reality television show, Skating with the Stars.

After the show’s first week, the producers moved Belbin to a co-hosting role. And with the feedback she’s been receiving, one would think she’s been hosting shows for years. Guess again.

“My heart was pounding so hard,” Belbin said. “I thought I could never be any more nervous than I had been at both my Olympics and I think I was actually more nervous just because it was so unfamiliar and I had no past experience to go by in terms of being on a live show.”

Belbin’s immediate on-air success is reminiscent of the couple’s early on-ice success.

In their first competitive season together, they took bronze at the 2000 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. The next two seasons they earned back-to-back silver medals at the senior U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Typically, a second-place finish at Nationals is enough to be selected to the Olympic Winter Games. But Belbin and Agosto didn’t get to compete at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The problem wasn’t on the ice, but off of it. Belbin was not an American citizen, so she could not represent the United States at the Games.

“We came up really quickly from junior into senior, so it was a surprise to be in that position and there was just never any chance or possibility of me becoming an American citizen in time,” Belbin said. “It really wasn’t so much of a disappointment as it was a motivation to continue to pursue our goals, knowing that we had an opportunity to go.”

Belbin had applied for a green card before certain law changes went into effect so she had several years tacked on to her waiting period. This meant she would not become a citizen before the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

When Agosto’s cousin told a co-worker, attorney Barney Skladany, about Belbin’s situation, everything began to change. Skladany realized there was a large group of people in the same boat and he lobbied for Congress to pass a bill that would allow Belbin to expedite the citizenship process.

“He did amazing work and we had the privilege of going to Washington, D.C., and getting a tour of Congress and getting to meet some people and I think that helped to put a face on the situation we were in,” Agosto said.

“We were literally interrupting Congressmen’s lunches to introduce me and to say, ‘Please help us,’” Belbin added.

Agosto said when they received the call at the 11th hour that the bill had gone through, they rushed down to the courthouse to get Belbin sworn in as an American citizen. President George W. Bush signed the special act of Congress on Dec. 31, 2005 – less than two months before the start of the Games.

The excitement of Belbin becoming a citizen propelled them straight through a third consecutive national title right to Torino. Complete with a red-hot original dance to Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud,” they captivated the judges and viewers and earned the silver medal – something Team USA had never done before.

The only other medal the U.S. had earned in ice dance was the bronze that Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns took in 1976, the year ice dance made its Olympic debut.

“I think that in a way it worked out perfectly because winning the medal was the best possible way that I could think of to thank everyone that put so much time and effort into allowing me to get my citizenship in time,” Belbin said.

They solidified themselves as the most successful and most decorated American ice dancers in history.

They also brought hope to other U.S. ice dance teams by putting an end to the thought that the U.S. could not medal internationally.

“Growing up and looking up to them, it was amazing to watch them win the silver in 2006,” Davis said. “It was really exciting, I think not only for us, but for all up-and-coming American ice dance teams to know it was possible to make that podium and achieve that success.”

“They gave us the confidence to be fearless and be able to compete and know that even though we’re American we still had a chance to medal,” added White.

Belbin and Agosto contemplated retirement after their Olympic success. As Belbin put it, it’s difficult to keep the level of success that they had, “especially in ice dancing where teams seem to have their glory and then have to be taken down by the next teams to keep the progression going.”

Deciding they had more potential, they committed to four more years, with all eyes set on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

They managed to remain one of the top teams in the world over the next three seasons, winning three of six Grand Prix assignments and taking silver at the others, as well as a silver at the 2007 Grand Prix Final, and silver and bronze World Championship medals. During that time, they moved from Michigan to Pennsylvania to be coached by 1980 Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov and make changes to their skating.

While Belbin and Agosto had their ups, they also had plenty of downs.

Halfway through the 2008 Grand Prix Final, Agosto suffered from a herniated disc so they had to drop out of the competition, as well as withdraw from Nationals the following month.

“The herniated disc was a difficult thing to mentally get through because it was a debilitating thing where it took me a long time to get the normal use of my leg back,” Agosto said.

“I think in a lot of ways it was a really good hurdle for us to overcome as a team because it was the kind of thing where if you could get past that, you could get past anything.”

They overcame Agosto’s injury and the next season took gold at both of their Grand Prix events as well as silver at Nationals.

Most importantly to them, they were entering Vancouver as different skaters with a fresh outlook and style.

“It was really about trying to show everyone what we had been working on and the progress that we had made,” Agosto said. “We hadn’t expected us to push on at that point in our career to really make those kinds of improvements in just our basic skating and we were really happy with that and really excited to show that we were capable of.”

When all was said and done, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were the Olympic champions, Davis and White took the silver, and Belbin and Agosto finished fourth – just four points off from the Russian bronze medalists, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin.

Though they left the final competition of their careers without a medal, Agosto said they could not have ended on a higher note.

“I really feel like we have never skated better at a competition than we did in Vancouver, so it was a really fulfilling experience to be able to go out and feel like we did everything we wanted to when it really counted.”

“At the end of the day, the feedback we received from our fans, from the judges, from the people in the skating community after that competition was actually more personally rewarding than if we had received a medal and been told that not everyone agreed that we deserved it,” Belbin agreed.

It seems the skating community certainly did agree.

“You have to respect so much what they went through to get to that point – with a coaching change, changing up their skating style a little, Ben had been injured and they had a rough year before that,” White said.

“But they were hungry and they both have very competitive spirits and they went out there and performed their hearts out. It was too bad that the judges weren’t able to recognize that.”

White said it was some of the best skating he had ever seen from them, which says a lot coming from one of their biggest competitors.

Then again, it seems that just about all figure skaters admire Belbin and Agosto, and the legacy they leave behind in their sport.

The U.S. Figure Skating team voted the couple team captains in Vancouver, which they both agreed is their favorite moment of a very illustrious career.

“I really think being named captains from the figure skating team meant a lot to us because it meant the impression that we had left and the impact we made was one that we had always aimed for, which was to be great ambassadors and role models for our sport and for the athletes,” Belbin said.

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