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Congress rightly considers plight of ice dancer

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Tanith Belbin is the kind of athlete many Americans would want to have represent them overseas. She's gracious and well-spoken. She has raised money for the less fortunate. She's one of the least likely people on earth to cause an international incident. And she wins a lot.

She is everything the United States would want in an Olympic athlete, except for one very essential detail. She is not ours.

Tanith Belbin is a Canadian, even though she left Canada and moved to the United States in 1998, when she was 14.

She also is an ice dancer, and a very good one. She and her partner Ben Agosto are the best ice dance team the United States has fielded in 30 years, and if they were given a chance to represent the country at the upcoming Winter Olympics, they'd likely win a medal.

In fact, at the moment, with Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen fighting injuries, Belbin and Agosto are the best U.S. hope in any of the four figure skating disciplines to win a medal at the Olympics.

Of course, that would require them to actually be at the Olympics representing the United States. And therein lies the problem. As things stand now, Belbin would become a U.S. citizen in 2007, five years after getting her green card, but too late for the Winter Olympics.

If you're wondering if there isn't something someone can do about this, if you're thinking that we as a nation have imported a lot worse over the years than a kind, generous athlete who wins boatloads of medals, you're not alone.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., thinks so too. He authored an amendment that was adopted by the Senate last week that would allow Belbin and, his office says, as many as 100 other "aliens of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics" to speed up their citizenship -- something a new rule now allows -- and correct "an absurdity in the law," as Levin put it in a news release.

Today, due to a rule change in 2002, those with "extraordinary ability" can apply for their visas and green cards at the same time. But when Belbin and many others started the process before the rule change, she had to wait 18 months after getting her visa before receiving her green card.

Had Belbin been working under the new system, she likely would have become a U.S. citizen this month, in plenty of time to make the 2006 Olympics.

Now, with Levin's help, the process that lies ahead for Belbin, who trains in Detroit, is basic civics. For the amendment to become law, House and Senate conferees will have to keep it attached to an appropriations bill, the House and the Senate will need to approve the bill, then the president must sign it.

If that occurs, Belbin, 21, and Agosto, 23, will go to the Olympics, provided they qualify at the U.S. nationals in January and there are no bureaucratic glitches.

"I'm a little more hopeful," Belbin said over the phone Wednesday. "It would be impossible not to be hopeful. It would be a dream come true."

As it is, she and Agosto, who was born in Chicago, already have missed one Olympics. They qualified for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, but of course could not go. Since then, they have steadily risen through the ranks, winning the last two U.S. national titles and a stunning silver medal at the 2005 world championships. (While athletes must be citizens of the country they represent to go to the Olympics, that's not the case at the U.S. nationals or the world championships.)

Theirs isn't just a story of success; it's a lesson in loyalty. Through it all, as the questions about the 2006 Olympics have intensified, Belbin never has complained, and Agosto, the son of a Vietnam veteran, never for a second has considered leaving her for another partner, or leaving his country to try to join hers.

As their profile rose, they threw themselves into organizing a skating benefit for tsunami victims this year that raised $40,000, all the while saying they would not worry about what they could not control. If necessary, they would simply look ahead to the 2010 Olympics, when they still would be in their 20s.

"There are emergency situations," Belbin said several times, "and I am not an emergency situation."

Their results only got better, and in the process, they began helping this country's skating fortunes. Due to their stellar performance at the 2005 worlds, the United States is allowed to send three ice dancing teams to the Olympics for the first time since 1984.

It would be fitting if they are one of them.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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