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American ice dancers four of a kind

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(NAGANO, Japan) - What do a former Russian, an ex-Canadian pair skater and an American Indian have in common? They are all part of America's diverse ice dance team at the World Figure Skating Championships.

Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang were dubbed ``The New American and the Native American'' at last month's Salt Lake City Olympics. Tchernyshev, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, spent nine years in the United States before finally becoming a citizen in January, 2001.

Lang is a member of the Karuk tribe of northern California. According to the U.S. Figure Skating Association, she was the first American Indian in the Winter Olympics.

Tanith Belbin, a native of Kingston, Ontario, has decided to become an American to team up with Benjamin Agosto, whose Chicago roots are a little more commonplace than the others.

At the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, Utah's five major tribes were given the honor of welcoming the Olympic athletes. Leaders from the Ute, Navajo, Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone nations greeted the world in their native tongues, then blessed competitors from five participating countries.

Lang was among those who participated.

Unlike Lang and Tchernyshev, Belbin and Agosto didn't make it to the Olympics. That's because Belbin is in the process of becoming an American but didn't get her citizenship in time to compete in Salt Lake City.

``It was really just a question of convenience,'' said Belbin. ``We train in Detroit and we just decided it would be easier if I became an American. And it's not as though I won't be able to go back to Canada because I'll have dual citizenship.''

Belbin was a pairs skater in Canada but decided to make the switch after being told by her coaches she was more suited to ice dancing. She couldn't find a suitable partner in Canada and met Agosto in 1998.

Belbin and Agosto won the gold medal at the 2002 World Junior Championships in Hamar, Norway two weeks ago and came straight from Norway to Nagano _ a huge transition for the duo, who are making their second appearance at the world championships. They were 17th in 2001.

They also won the silver medal at the 2001 world juniors and the bronze at the 2000 world juniors.

Belbin knew she and Agosto wouldn't be eligible for the Olympics but said it was still tough to watch on TV. She expects to have her green card in the next three months and is already looking ahead to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

``Sacrifice is the name of the game in figure skating so it was tough not to be able to go but we just kept busy with our training.'' Belbin and Agosto were 14th after Thursday's original dance. They dropped down one spot after Agosto got his skate caught on the boards and tripped.

``It was a good program other than that,'' said Agosto. ``It's still one of our favorite dances. We just wanted to get back into it and the biggest thing is to not let it affect the rest of our performance.''

Lang and Tchernyshev were in ninth place after the original dance. ``It felt pretty good to be out there. It was pretty hard to get back into things after the Olympics but I thought we did a good job and we're happy with it,'' said Lang.

The duo have been skating together since 1997. They were first in the U.S. Championships from 1999 through 2001. Their best finish at the world championships was ninth in 2001.

With Olympic gold medalists Gwendel Peizerat and Marina Anissina of France absent along with bronze medalists Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy, the door is open here in Nagano but the two American duos are not quite there but have plenty of potential for future competitions.

The last time the U.S. won a medal in ice dancing in the world championships was 1985 in Tokyo when Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert took home the bronze.

With next year's championships in Washington D.C., there couldn't be a better place or a better time for America's diverse ice dancers to come together in the nation's capital.
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