ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – The Olympic figure skating season is off to a fine start for the duo of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

The only problem: They’re not eligible for the Turin Games.

Belbin and Agosto, the first U.S. dance team with a legitimate shot at an Olympic medal in more than two decades, won Skate America on Saturday with a flashy flamenco free dance.

It was a fast-paced routine featuring some stunningly difficult footwork – very impressive for the opening Grand Prix series event.

“For the first Grand Prix and all the circumstances surrounding this week, we’re really proud of ourselves,” said Belbin, who was plagued by bronchitis earlier this week. “I expect this program will show a lot of improvement by nationals and worlds.”

Notice she did not mention the Olympics.

Belbin is a Canadian native in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship; both skaters must be citizens of this nation to represent it at the games.

The couple has hired a law firm to help speed up that quest and is getting help from a congressional representative.

Belbin and Agosto almost certainly need an answer by the end of the year for her to be able to skate at Turin.

“We’ve left that to our support group, which has been great, while we concentrate on our skating,” Agosto said. “We concentrate on doing our work.”

They did it very well in sweeping all three portions of the ice dance. It was their third straight victory at Skate America, and they now get six weeks to work on the citizenship issue and on their programs before their next Grand Prix appearance, at the NHK Trophy in Japan.

“We’ve skated in back-to-back Grand Prixs and now we are trying this,” Belbin said. “As professional athletes, we need to be prepared to perform our best no matter how much time is in between events.”

Russia’s Elena Sokolova, skating a clean but somewhat lackluster free skate, had little trouble beating a second-level field in the women’s event. Coming off two disappointing seasons after finishing second in the world in 2003, Sokolova never struggled here, but lacked the pizazz of American Alissa Czisny, who won the long program.

But Czisny was third in the short program and couldn’t catch Sokolova despite a personal best free skate. Japan’s Yoshie Onda finished third.

“It’s always really important,” Sokolova said of skating cleanly. “There are always ups and downs and hopefully all of the downs will be during practice.

“America is usually a lucky country for me. I always skate good here.”

Sokolova hit six triples, two in combination, but also had two shaky landings. Her spins and footwork were somewhat pedestrian.

“It was not bad,” she said, hardly an endorsement of her performance. “I am satisfied … for the first time (out) this season.”

Czisny has had a busy month, and she isn’t through. She replaced Michelle Kwan at a pro-am early in October, then was told Monday night she would replace Sasha Cohen at Skate America. Both Kwan and Cohen are injured.

After returning to Bowling Green for a French test Monday, she will head to Skate Canada.

“It’s been a busy season,” said Czisny, who was seventh at last January’s nationals and entered the season as a rank outsider for an Olympic berth. “I was in Skate America last year and learned a lot from it. I’m glad I stayed focused through the long program; it’s one thing I learned last year.

“I haven’t gotten such high marks in a program before.”

Belbin and Agosto are getting used to high marks.

The world silver medalists – the last U.S. duo to finish so high was in 1975 – earned 190.45 points to outdistance France’s Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who had 184.47. Third were Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who collected their first senior Grand Prix medal.

The French team’s routine was highly original and entertaining. Skating to music specifically composed for the program, Delobel and Schoenfelder portray a couple wearing different masks at the Venice Carnivale. At one point, he completely covers her face with his gloved hands, forming a specific mask. Later on, she covers her face with her own gloved hands to form a different mask.

“This year we tried a new concept,” he said. “There is much mystery to it.”

The pairs free skate was held later Saturday night.

AP-ES-10-22-05 2013EDT

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