Speed Thrills in First Round

Skating noticeably faster and with more flair than their competitors, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev easily waltzed and glided their way into first place after the first round of ice dancing competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday night at Staples Center.

Lang and Tchernyshev, three-time defending champions, weren't flawless but were the leaders in both rounds of compulsories. All the couples first skated the Ravensburger waltz and then the blues.

In the second dance, Tchernyshev lost his edge and nearly slipped, but the slight bobble was more than compensated for by the greater speed and more intricate steps performed by the couple.

"We were a little rusty today," Lang said, "because we haven't competed in half a year." The Russian-born Tchernyshev, who gained his U.S. citizenship in 2000 to make the couple Olympic-eligible, was sidelined all fall because of shin splints. This kept Lang, 23, and Tchernyshev, 30, out of their Grand Prix assignments.

Lang and Tchernyshev are trying to become the first to win four consecutive U.S. titles since Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert won five in a row from 1981 through 1985.

In second place after the compulsories, which count for 20% of the final score, are Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. Belbin, 17, is from Kirland, Canada, so she and Agosto, 19, are ineligible for either of the two U.S. Olympic ice dancing spots.

When Belbin and Agosto became a team three years, Agosto said that "we never thought it would even be a factor for this Olympics. We weren't thinking of 2002 as an option. Now everybody keeps asking about how it feels [to be ineligible] and it's almost mind-boggling."

Belbin said she and Agosto are trying to think only of placing well in these national championships even while everybody else is concentrating on the Olympics. "We're here to enjoy this," Belbin said, "and to focus on doing what we love well."

In third place are Beata Handra of San Rafael and Charles Sinek of Lexington, Mass. Handra and Sinek finished fourth at last year's nationals. Last year's bronze medalists, Jessica Joseph and Brandon Forsyth are in fifth place. Forsyth said that he and Joseph "are still getting our legs. The real competition starts [Thursday]."

Forsyth would be referring to the original dance, which counts for 30% of the final score. The free dance, which counts for 50%, is Saturday.

Diane Pucin

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