2009 Four Continents Dance Preview

By Alexandra Stevenson

Navarro and Bommentre look good in practice; US and Canadian champions go head to head.
How will Virtueís injury affect their performance?

Opening the try-out event for next yearís Olympics, in the Pacific Coliseum on Wednesday 1pm, is the Finnstep. Itís being greeted with some trepidation. "I only wish we had been practicing it all year instead of just five days," said Kimberly Navarro, after taking the ice for her and partner, Brent Bommentreís first practice session on Monday morning on the Olympic ice. "Itís a terrific dance, very classy, very elegant and ballroom-y but we really could have used more preparation time."

The dance was chosen mid-December for this and the European championship, leaving the draw for Worlds between the 80-year-old Paso Doble and Viennese Waltz. Unlike most European countries, the US and Canada, wisely, chose not to use the Finnstep in their nationals. Forcing a significant amount of top competitors to learn a compulsory they might never need again, would have inconvenienced and been very expensive for a number of skaters and their coaches.

The 5í3" Navarro, 27, and Bommentre, 5í9", 24, have now won bronze in U.S. nationals for two years in a row. They knew they would have to do the Finnstep if they were chosen for the Four Continents team, which was likely, but were far too focused on doing well in Cleveland. "We couldnít afford to waste a moment. Nationals was our very top priority," said Bommentre. "But once we knew we were coming here, we trained it flat out. Weíre very excited to be to skating on Olympic ice. Itís inspiring."

This is their third Four Continents Championship. They finished fifth in 2007 and third last year. Navarro and Bommentre teamed up in 2005. Navarro began skating at 3, because her mother, Lisa, a former national pairs competitor, teaches the sport. Her father, John, is an eighth-degree black belt in karate. Bommentre took up skating at 6 because his doctor recommended it for his asthma. In their first world championships, in 2008, they placed 12th. They are trained by Robbie Kaine and Cheryl Demkowski Snyder in Philadelphia and Aston, PA.

The couples slated for gold and silver undoubtedly are duos training in Canton, Michigan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the twice Canadian champions, back from her injury, and the new US title holders, Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Neither took advantage of the early Monday practice in Vancouver.

On paper, as runners-up for the World title, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the clear favorites but they had not competed for ten months before returning to successfully defend their Canadian title in January, which they did despite his fall in their Free Dance.

"Three months ago, I could not walk," Virtue told reporters at the national championships. The 19 year old had surgery on October 6 for compartment syndrome, a condition that caused chronic pain in both shins. The surgery involved slicing open the skin that surrounds the muscle to give the muscle room to expand. The gruesome procedure was described "like zipping open a sleeve". She was forced to stay off her skates for two months, spending her days doing physiotherapy, Pilates and receiving massage. She had only been back on the ice for six weeks before the Canadian championships where they gave a flawed but successful performance.

"I was pretty proud of what Tessís accomplished in the three months," Moir, who is 21, said. "It definitely wasnít an easy road for her, and, hopefully, we can keep on the road to recovery and get back to 100 per cent, and get these programs to where we want them to be. It was awkward for Tessa and I because we were in different cities. She was back home in London, Ontario, but we were still thinking of that Olympic goal in the back of our heads," Moir said. "We had never been apart since we were seven and nine (years old), so it was definitely a little bit of a trying time for us. Training was a lot different, but mostly we missed the personal relationship."

Virtue said, "I think it would have been really hard for me to watch him skate by himself, knowing that I wasnít able to be out there with him." Moir continued to train with a sandbag, a core exercise ball and a hockey stick. But, without his partner, it wasnít with the same intensity. "We trained for nationals but obviously not as much as we had in the past. I was pretty tired. I tried not to look it, but obviously that didnít work very well. It was an exhausting program but at the same time it was a lot of fun and really rewarding for us. I think it gets only easier from here.

"The sand bag just seemed to work. Itís really quite awkward to hold and I wanted something that was going to be difficult. About 50 pounds of sand is a lot heavier than Tessa ever has been in a lift, because she holds herself really well. I was easily frustrated some days because I didnít have Tessa there. But at the same time, there was no lack of motivation. All I had to do was imagine the Olympics in my own country! It was hard hearing news about everyone competing in the Grand Prixs. That kind of boiled my blood a little bit, so it wasnít that hard to stay motivated."

They have been partners since 1997, as have their prime rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White whom they see everyday at the Canton rink. Moir says he had a partner before Virtue, "But I screwed up the steps, and then she didnít want to skate with me again. I was eight. Then I found Tessa, and I screwed up the steps in the first competition and she stayed with me and thatís when I knew Iíd found THE one.

Both couples made remarkable debuts in worlds in Tokyo in 2007, with the Canadians finishing 6th and the Americans 7th) but in Sweden Virtue and Moir raced ahead. Davis and White moved up only to 6th while the Canadians took the silver medal. This week will tell how much the injury has cost them.

Having trained alongside them for many years, Davis was great friends with Tanith Belbin and was upset when the five-time champion withdrew from nationals because of her partnerís back injury. When the official withdrawal was made public, Davis texted Belbin asking, "What am I going to do with you?" Belbin immediately texted back, "Win."

But while the competitors are friendly, coach Igor Shpilband was not pleased when Belbin and Agosto left his stable to go to Aston, PA, to train with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov. Shpilband has said that he believes Davis and White would have given Belbin and Agosto a run for their money.

He also pointed out a strange coincidence. In the 1994 U.S. championships, he believed his pupils, Liz Punsalan and Jerod Swallow could beat defending champions, Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur. Punsalan and Swallow did win, but Roca and Sur had withdrawn because of injury. The same thing happened in 2004. Shpilband was sure Belbin and Agosto could beat the defending champions but, although they did win, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev had pulled out because of injury.

Shpilband was ready for Davis and White to beat Belbin and Agosto, but, although they took the title by over 20 points, they didnít face off with Belbin and Agosto. That battle will have to wait until Worlds.

White said the question was mute. "I think that performance was a realization for us that we really have what it takes to put our best in front of a large audience against great competition. It would have been a good story line going against Tanith and Ben at national, but it wouldnít have changed the way we competed."

And here in Vancouver, Davis and White face equally determined rivals, the fast-improving Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, who won silver in Cleveland after being fourth in nationals the year before.

Bates and White are roommates, along with several other male figure skaters, at an apartment off-campus at the University of Michigan. "Of course we are rivals on the ice. That doesnít mean we canít be civilized when we are not competing," said White when asked whether thatís an uncomfortable situation. "Weíre not boxers."

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