Hope and Twizzles: Four New Partnerships

By Lynn Rutherford

For ice dancers, moxie and persistence are as essential as good flexibility. The perfect partner may be right around the corner – or in the next state, or across the sea.

The success of U.S. champions Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, who gained the World silver medal in Moscow this spring, and U.S. silver medallists Melissa Gregory & Denis Petukhov, who placed 11th, earned the U.S. three ice dance slots for the 2006 Olympics in Turin. But the Canadian-born Belbin is not yet a U.S. citizen, making the team ineligible. Unless U.S. Congress takes extraordinary action, the couple will have to wait until 2010 to test their mettle on Olympic ice. Reigning World junior champions Morgan Matthews & Max Zavozin are in the same boat.

"It’s a bit frustrating; we helped to win three spots, but we can’t take one. It’s a great opportunity for other people, though. I think I’m going to charge some of the other (ice dancers) at Nationals next year," said Agosto with a laugh.

And so, for a phalanx of newly formed American dance teams, hope is that thing with feathers -- and/or sequins.

Change Partners and Dance

After winning bronze medals at U.S. Nationals and Four Continents this winter, the two-year partnership of Lydia Manon & Ryan O’Meara seemed well on its way to Turin. Despite that powerful incentive, personality clashes doomed the couple.

"I was not happy in my situation with Ryan and decided I had to make a change. I almost called it quits after last season; we’re just two different types of people," said Manon.

"You put so much time, energy and money into a partnership; if you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth it. But I wanted to finish the 2004-2005 season, because I think once you make a commitment to something, you should go through with it."

After calling it quits with O’Meara after Four Continents this February, Manon decided to try a new partnership with Brandon Forsythe, her boyfriend of two years.

"We’ve been dating for a while, and we’ve coached together a lot, so it felt very natural that we should start skating together," she said.

"We obviously have chemistry together, because of our personal relationship. So we melded quite quickly," added Forsythe, who has had partnership troubles of his own over the years. Early in his career, he won the U.S. junior silver medal with Emily Nussear. He and his next partner, Jessica Josephs, placed fifth at the 2002 U.S. Nationals, just missing an Olympic berth. Since then, he has had a myriad of tryouts and several aborted partnerships.

"I didn’t want to skate anymore; I was happy coaching. There were several partners that I had started with, that didn’t finish the season with me for various reasons, like homesickness. All my previous partners were great people and great skaters but I found the commitment levels were different," he said.

Fortunately for O’Meara, at about this time, a former world junior champion was regaining her love of the sport.

Jamie Silverstein, who won the World junior title with previous partner Justin Pekarek in 1999, had not set foot on the ice for more than two years. As she attended Cornell University in upstate New York, her skates were stowed away in the trunk of her car, where the blades rusted over.

"I wouldn’t even have brought my skates to school if my mother hadn’t made me. She thought I would join the figure skating team or just skate for fun, but I didn’t," remembered Silverstein.

"My break-up with Justin was pretty bad. I was looking for a catharsis, a different kind of artistic media. I was fragile and needed time to figure out what I loved to do. But I found that I wasn’t very articulate; I needed skating in order to express myself. When I started skating again I felt like I was coming home."

Silverstein called her former coach, Igor Shpilband, during the 2005 Nationals and said she wanted to give it another try.

"At first, he thought I was kidding; then he said, ‘Come to the rink and I’ll find you a boy.’ So I went to the rink with my rusted-out skates over the holiday break. At first, I was helping out Ben Miller, who is new to ice dance. Then, I found out Ryan needed a new partner."

O’Meara was still recovering from a shock of his own.

"I found out the day after we got back from Four Continents I would not be skating with Lydia any more. She called me on my cell phone while I was at the mall. I was really taken aback, and went to the rink to talk to Igor. He suggested I try out with Jamie," said O’Meara.

"I was ready, willing and able, and after about three weeks, we said, ‘Things are going well; let’s keep it up.’ So here we are," said Silverstein, who has now taken a leave of absence from Cornell.

"They are not little kids; you can’t tell them what to do. I was not in favor of (the Manon & O’Meara) split but I like Lydia and I wanted to support her. I’m glad it worked out for Ryan, too, and everyone is moving forward," said Shpilband, who coaches both couples in Canton, Michigan, where they share the ice with Belbin & Agosto and a dozen other teams. All say the training situation is superb.

"There is ample ice time and the rink is really good to us. We have the ice from 6 am to 6 pm; Igor really has control over the surface. We all work together and push ourselves to get better. Everyone is supportive; we all clap for each other after our run-throughs. We even have large group outings, like to Tiger games," said Forsythe.

"Tanith and Ben are a real inspiration for us; they’ve accomplished huge things for everyone," added Manon.

A New Chapter

After finishing up her five-year partnership with Robert Shmalo in 2003, Kim Navarro wasn’t certain she would ever compete again. Living in New York City, she earned a B.A. from Columbia University and performed extensively with the prestigious Ice Theatre of New York. But when Brent Bommentre called, she found she was more than ready to resume her competitive career.

Today, Navarro & Bommentre – who train with Robbie Kaine and Natalia Linichuk in Ardmore, PA and the University of Delaware -- have nothing but glowing words for one another.

"It’s been great. Kim is an amazing skater and an amazing person. It’s enjoyable to train with someone that has her positive perspective on life," said Bommentre.

"I think Kim and I have a unique package to offer. She’s so underrated; I think she is the best female ice dancer in the U.S. today. She has such expression on the ice. Our lines have good unison and our skating styles match."

Navarro, whose blonde locks make for good contrast with her dark partner, echoed Bommentre’s praise.

"We’ve both had multiple other partners and know what works and what doesn’t. We respect each other and have a real connection out there on the ice – I feel like I could fall in love with him out there and play the part," she said.

Good timing brought the two together.

"I ended my former partnership (with Kendra Goodwin) after (2005) Nationals, and I had some time to evaluate what I wanted from skating. I put together a short list of possible partners, started making phone calls, and contacted Kim for a tryout," said Bommentre.

"After three days, we knew it would work. The only hard part about this entire situation was ending my partnership with Kendra. That was a very difficult decision, but unfortunately, that’s reality of ice dance."

Navarro was willing to relocate to the Philadelphia area.

"I enjoyed New York, but I was ready for a new chapter in my life," said the California native.

"My boyfriend and I moved to the outskirts of Philly, just 15 minutes from the (Ardmore) rink. He has a job offer and starts work August 15th. It’s so nice to be where we are – it’s a quiet area, but the city is right there if we want some excitement."

Both Navarro and Bommentre are trying hard not to get caught up in the rush toward Turin.

"We have so many years ahead of us. Yes, we’ve got the Olympics coming up, but we’re doing this for the long-term," said Navarro.

"The Olympics is not the reason we are skating together. We’re focusing on doing the best we can do at Nationals and hopefully getting an international assignment," added Bommentre.

Love Blooms in Connecticut

For Jennifer Wester & Daniil Barantsov – a girl from Dallas, Texas and a boy from Ekaterinaburg in Russia’s Ural Mountains – it’s been a long road to Lake Placid. The couple has trained under Nikolai Morozov in Newington, CT for more than two years, but Wester’s shoulder injuries have delayed their debut.

"Just being here feels wonderful. It’s a thrill for me. I’ve loved skating for so long, and to be able to find a partner like Daniil -- then to fall in love with him on top of it – is incredible," said Wester.

The bubbly blonde, who has had surgery to both shoulders, said her injuries are mostly a thing of the past.

"Knock wood -- after two full surgeries and a whole lot of rehab, I feel amazing. I’m still taking it slowly doing the Beillmann positions, but that’s really just being cautious," she explained.

The story of partnership sounds like a corny, modern-day fairytale. Wester was in the stands at the 2003 Worlds in Washington, D.C., where she spied Morozov. At that time, it was well known in skating circles that Barantsov, a two-time World junior champion, had ended his partnership with Natalia Romaniuta and moved to Newington. The lovely Wester introduced herself and indicated she’d like a tryout. Morozov took her number, told her he would give her a call – and then did.

"After 15 minutes on the ice, Daniil and I just clicked. Within 45 minutes, the partnership was sealed. And a few weeks after that we started dating," said Wester, who had spent months looking for a partner prior to the tryout.

Skating with a two-time World junior champion was intimidating at first, but Wester feels it helped her skating grow.

"When we first got together he helped push me to train harder, to get better technically. He’s an amazing skater and he was super patient with me; he never got frustrated," she said. They passed their senior tests June 13.

"We’ve been together for two seasons and haven’t been able to compete. It was hard, but I believe in him and he believes in me."

The couple was engaged on February 27th and has set a wedding date for May 6, 2006.

"He’s a wonderful guy. My dad loves him; he’s teaching him how to play golf. My mother treats him like a son. His family is great too."

Unlike other new partnerships, Turin is not part of their plans. Barantsov has begun the process of citizenship and they expect to be eligible for the 2010 Olympics.

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