Italians win compulsories, Belbin-Agosto sixth

Updated: February 17, 2006, 6:03 PM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- Trash-talking, a shakeup in the standings and a large, raucous crowd. If not for the parade of hideous costumes, no one would have known this was compulsory dance.

Italians Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio brought some sizzle to figure skating's sleepiest event Friday night, delighting the home crowd with a triumphant return from retirement. And by waltzing their way back to the top of the standings, the 2001 world champions let everyone know there's going to be some grit to go with the glitter in this year's Olympic ice dancing competition.

"We are in front," Margaglio said, "and the others must do better."

Pretty strong words coming from people wearing neon orange, black, gold and lime green outfits. But Fusar Poli and Margaglio wowed the judges with their impeccable timing and interpretation of the "Ravensburger Waltz," finishing with 38.78 points, a half-point ahead of two-time world champions Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov.

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto looked more like typical American also-rans than the medal contenders everyone expected, finishing a surprisingly low sixth with 37.36 points. But the silver medalists at last year's world championships were only 1.42 points out of first place, hardly insurmountable.

The original dance is Sunday night, and Belbin and Agosto's routine is a steamy mix of rhumba, salsa and cha cha that's sure to please. When it came time to draw their spot for the original dance, Agosto rubbed his hands for luck, then gave a thumbs up when he saw he and Belbin would skate last.

The free dance is Monday night.

"We were shaky here and there, and could have competed it better," said the Canadian-born Belbin, who only became a U.S. citizen and eligible for the games on Dec. 31.

"But we really felt proud we could go out and attack it, knowing the rest of the competition is better for us."

No one knew quite what to expect from the Italians, who retired after winning the bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics. She had a baby almost two years ago, and they gave little thought to competing again.

But with the Olympics in their home country, they decided to give it a whirl.

"We said, 'Why not come back and skate for our country?" Fusar Poli said. "Like this, I could skate for 10 more years, but I'm 34 years old."

It's hard enough to return to Olympic-level competition in most sports, but it's near impossible in ice dance. Even with the new, more objective judging system, there's a pecking order, and you don't automatically get your old place in line.

"I think we are one of the most surprising athletes at the Olympics because nobody saw us before the Olympics," Margaglio said. "When we came to Torino, all the world of ice skating was very curious. I bet many people were thinking we could not do it. We started at the first practice as good as ever and after this result, I think we are convincing people."

Still, even Fusar Poli and Margaglio were a little surprised at their surge back to the top.

It was bedlam in the packed arena when the Italians, skating 19th out of 24 couples, took the ice. When their marks were posted, shouts of "Italia, Italia" shook the building and Fusar Poli and Margaglio showed why it's called the "Kiss and Cry" area.

Her eyes opened wide, filling with tears, and he buried his head in her shoulder. They hugged, and he was still pumping his fist at the cheering fans when he walked out of the arena several minutes later.

"In Italy, we talk every day about soccer," Fusar Poli said. "But there are a lot of people who like skating, and you could see that with the amazing crowd."

Belbin and Agosto are going to have to tap into the crowd's energy if they hope to end the United States' 30-year medal drought in dance.

Their silver at last year's world championships was the first medal by a U.S. team in 20 years, and sparked new appreciation for a sport many Americans watched simply for comic relief.

While Belbin and Agosto's results weren't great -- they were second after compulsories at last year's worlds -- they were thrilled with the experience.

"I'm trying not to be overwhelmed by it, because not only am I competing in the Olympics, but I'm competing as a brand-new American," Belbin said. "So it's double the emotion and excitement.

"I'm trying to break it down piece by piece and make sure that the whole time I'm skating, I'm not thinking about, `I've got to get this medal for everyone who helped me get here," she added.

American skaters already have been shut out in the pairs and men's events, and only Sasha Cohen is considered a contender among the women. None of the other American dancers are a medal threat. Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov were 15th, and Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O'Meara finished 18th.

"It's just the start of the competition," Fusar Poli said. "We'd be very happy to stay in this position, so we will work very, very hard."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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