U.S. Wins First Ice Dance Medal Since 1976

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were still on the ice long after getting their silver medals. They posed for pictures, clowned for the crowd, waved the flag and tried to thank every single fan who showed up to cheer them. After all, they were the first American ice dancers in 30 years with a medal to celebrate.

"This is absolutely amazing," Agosto said Monday night, wearing a smile that looked as if it would never come off. "We really feel this medal belongs to a lot of people who put in years and years of support. And for the teams that came before us and put in years of dedication building the sport of ice dancing in the U.S.

"It is hard to put into words. It is really wonderful."

Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov gave Russia another figure skating gold medal, making it three in as many events and continuing that country's long success in dance. Since it was added in 1976, a Russian or Soviet couple has won all but two of the golds in the event.

With Navka and Kostomarov on the verge of retirement, though, that dynasty could be coming to an end. And Belbin and Agosto hold the promise of a new one.

"I know for a fact it will not take another 30 years," Belbin said emphatically. "Anyone who was fortunate to witness our U.S. nationals, you would be so impressed with the level of ice dancing in the United States. I think it will be less time for more medals for the U.S."

Belbin and Agosto finished with 196.06 points, 4.58 points behind Navka and Kostomarov. Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov of Ukraine were third.

Americans Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov were 14th, and Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O'Meara finished 16th.

"We're very grateful for everyone who helped us come this far," Belbin said. "There was a lot riding on our shoulders, and now we can come out and say it's worth it."

Americans have been about as good in ice dancing as Jamaicans in bobsled. They hadn't won a medal since Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns took the bronze back in 1976 — more than a half-decade before Belbin or Agosto were born. Nobody even had a shot since the mid-1980s.

But Belbin and Agosto have shattered those ideas about American ice dancers having two left skates. Junior world champions in 2002, they won a silver medal at the senior level last year and established themselves as favorites for Torino.

There was one slight problem: the Canadian-born Belbin wasn't eligible for the games.

Belbin moved to the Detroit area in 1998 to train with Agosto, but didn't get her green card until 2002. A typical five-year wait for naturalization would have shut her out of these games, since only U.S. citizens can be on the Olympic team.

Congress took up her plight, though, and passed legislation that allowed her to take advantage of recent changes that shortened the naturalization process. She was sworn in Dec. 31, just in time to get a picture for her passport and a plane ticket to Italy.

"It's been a very up and down year with our emotions," said Agosto, who was mesmerized by the hole in the medal, repeatedly holding it up and playing peek-a-boo. "We were not even sure we would be here. And to now be here and with this medal around our necks is amazing."

Belbin is only 21 and Agosto 24, babies in ice dancing. Consider that Navka turns 31 in April, and was skating in her fourth Olympics. Kostomarov turned 29 earlier this month.

"It's always a little bitter taste when you have a silver medal. It's one step away from gold," said Igor Shpilband, Belbin and Agosto's longtime coach. "I'm sure they will learn from this. I still couldn't be any happier with the way they skated."

Sixth after a spotty showing in compulsories, Belbin and Agosto sambaed into second with their sultry Latin original dance. They stayed there with a passionate flamenco free skate that far surpassed their program at nationals, but wasn't flawless — and nowhere close to Navka and Kostomarov's playful routine to "Carmen."

But their lifts were interesting and showcased her flexibility. In one combination lift, Agosto was in a spread eagle and Belbin hung upside down over his arm while pulling one leg up to her head.

But she also had a slight stumble on a twizzle — a turn — and they didn't generate the heat a flamenco usually does. Even the crowd didn't get into it until late in the program.

"Obviously, we were proud of ourselves, but we would have preferred to have skated clean," Belbin said. "But when you add it all together, regardless of what we finished, we were second overall."

Navka and Kostomarov weren't perfect, either. They were slightly off on their footwork and finished their program with a small bobble. But their maturity and experience was evident for all to see. They were seductive and entertaining, and when she did her flamenco steps at the start of the program, the click of her skates on the ice sounded like castanets.

When they finished, she brushed her hands across the ice and he slid on his knees, pumping his arms in triumph.

"I can't believe it yet," Navka said. "This is my dream from when I was a little girl. I always wish to be Olympic champion, and it is coming and I am so happy."

Italian favorites Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio were happy, too, even if they didn't make the podium. The couple lost any chance for a medal with their infamous stumble-and-stare during the original dance Sunday, but they were back to playing nice Monday.

"We were not angry with each other," Margaglio said. Not even on Sunday? "We came on the ice in first place, and we wanted to keep it. You don't think you would be angry with that?"