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The Belbin of the ball

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The Belbin of the ball
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Tanith Belbin competes on Sunday

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Tanith Belbin flashes a gleaming smile and says she doesn't mind the attention, which is just as well. Because it won't stop anytime soon.

As the Vancouver Olympics glide toward the final stretch, Belbin's model looks and sparkling personality have given her a profile and popularity that transcend the ice dancing competition, where she and partner Benjamin Agosto seek to force their way into the medals in Monday night's free dance.

Even in a good-looking city filled with attractive Winter Olympians, the American ice dancer stakes a pretty serious claim to being the most eligible bachelorette of these Games and already has been named Men's Health magazine's hottest Winter Olympian.

Her first two performances with Agosto placed the Americans in fourth and caused her name to spike on Internet search engines. Team USA headquarters at the Olympic Village has been inundated with pro-Belbin messages and even a handwritten marriage proposal.

Belbin accepts such surreal advances philosophically and with a grace perhaps not surprising from an athlete in a sport where elegance means excellence.

“At an Olympic Games you expect more attention on your personal life and your non-sport-related issues,” said Belbin, who was born in Kingston, Ontario, but moved to the United States to partner with Agosto and has held dual citizenship since late 2005. “That is something that is exciting for us. It is fun to talk about something different and have the spotlight shone in different areas. Whatever attracts people to the sport is good for ice dancing and good for us.”

Right now, though, there is only one group Belbin wants to impress: the judges at Pacific Coliseum who placed Belbin and Agosto fourth after the original and compulsory programs, with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir heading the field.

But clearly the judges aren't the only ones watching.

Belbin's popularity explodes around Olympic time, just as it did in Torino four years ago when she and Agosto clinched the silver medal. There is strong fan support whenever they travel for international competition. In Asia, fans sometimes even camp out in the lobby of team hotels to catch a glimpse.

“It can get pretty crazy,” said Scottie Bibb, PR director of U.S. Figure Skating. “We have some very engaging and attractive athletes who do a wonderful job of promoting our sport, and people are going to be interested in them.”

Within Team USA, Belbin is just one of the crowd. This is a tight-knit sporting community, and the focus on Belbin produces far more amusement than jealousy.

“Tanith is a very well-spoken and beautiful girl, and the attention she gets is great for the sport of ice dance,” said American Charlie White, who with partner Meryl Davis sits in second place heading into Monday night's free dance. “To have beautiful girls like this walking around when they are not on the ice, it draws great attention – and some people even to watch me.

"I haven't had any marriage proposals yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Fans are discouraged from throwing flowers onto the ice after performances these days, but the end of Belbin and Agosto's displays prompt a missile shower of stuffed animals, cute toys, and heart-shaped cushions.

So what it is like for Agosto, the man who gets to skate with the hottest thing on ice?

“For me it is all about to fulfill our goals and achieve everything we have worked towards,” Agosto said. “It is a pleasure to dance with Tanith, because she is a wonderful athlete and performer and we have a great chemistry on the ice.

“We want to put in the best performance of our lives and get ourselves up there on the podium.”

Agosto is 28 and Belbin 25, so this will probably be their last Olympics. Belbin already has plans for the future that thankfully mean she won't be lost to the public eye.

“I am looking to get into broadcast journalism,” she said. “I like being on screen.”

On Monday night, a few million television viewers are going to like it too.

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