All those hours of training at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex have paid off for a quartet of figure skaters.
Now Manatee residents have a rooting interest in next month’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Caydee Denney, of Wesley Chapel, and Jeremy Barrett, of Venice, who train in Ellenton, won their first national championship Saturday in the Senior Pairs division at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Amanda Evora, of Bradenton, and Mark Ladwig, of Parrish, placed second. A short time after the competition, both teams were named to the U.S. Olympic squad.
Denney and Barrett weren’t even skating together two years ago. Now they’re U.S. champions on their way to Vancouver. The Winter Games begin Feb. 12.
“Our free skate (Saturday) was one of the best programs we’ve ever done,” Denney said. “It was just so much fun, and I will remember that forever.”
Denney and Barrett skated a high-energy, action-packed program to “Sheherazade” that was not only worthy of the title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but also ought to make the rest of the world take note.
Denney and Barrett finished with 190.30 points, almost 17 points in front of their training mates, Evora and Ladwig.
Former U.S. champions and 2006 Olympians Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were third after landing their signature throw triple axel, and an argument could have been made to send the veteran pair to Vancouver. But Baldwin dismissed that idea while the selection committee was still meeting.
“First and second, that’s how you should pick it,” he said. “It’s not up to me, but that’s how you should pick it.”
Keanua McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, almost a lock for Vancouver after winning the national title in 2008 and ’09, took themselves out of contention with yet another flawed performance. They finished fifth.
It was a stunning reversal of fortune for the former Whiz Kids, who had surprisingly quick success and endless potential. But Denney and Barrett have left them in the dust.
The Floridians skated together briefly in the summer of 2006 before Denney moved to Colorado with her mom and sister. But they missed Denney’s father, who had stayed in Florida, and returned home when the separation got to be too much. With Barrett still without a partner, the two reunited in the summer of 2008.
“I knew it was going to happen eventually, but I wasn’t sure whether it was this cycle or next,” coach Jim Peterson said. “But I knew when they came together they were going to be something big.”
The skaters put on quite a show for those watching on TV at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.
“There were about 50 to 75 people inside the ice arena watching on the TVs, and the (Ellenton Suds) restaurant next door had all of its TVs on as well,” said Darcy Brewer, a front desk clerk at the complex. “We were breathless. We were just as nervous as they were.”
Brewer’s daughter Cora, 11, trains under Barrett, Ladwig and Evora in Ellenton, and Brewer said the ice skating community always felt the skaters had the potential to break through and qualify for the Olympics.
“We watch them every day, and we knew they were great skaters and great people,” Brewer said. “We knew they could do it. Hopefully this will shoot up the popularity of skating. Actually, we have seen a big increase in enrollment lately in our basic skills program.”
It takes most pairs teams years to develop the seamless chemistry and unison required of a world-class team. But Denney and Barrett have been on the accelerated program. They were the surprise silver medalists at last year’s nationals, then finished an impressive ninth at their first world championships.
With another year together, they just might stir things up in Vancouver.
“I want the U.S. to get three spots. I want the U.S. to be a powerhouse again,” Peterson said. “I think they can do well. They were ninth at worlds last year, and I think they can improve on that, I really do.”
What makes Denney and Barrett so impressive is their power and strength. Their program was jam-packed from the opening notes of their music, with not even a second to take it easy. He was clearly exhausted when they finished — you try skating the length of the ice while carrying someone with one hand — but she looked ready to go again, hopping up and down on the ice and sprinting a few steps.
They did side-by-side triple toe loop jumps and two double axels in sequence, and knocked them out as easily as a bunny hop. And man, can they fly. There are speedskaters who couldn’t keep with these two, as they raced around the ice with grace and control.
Judy Blumberg, who won the first U.S. Olympic medal in ice dance with partner Michael Seibert, worked with Denney and Barrett on their “Sheherazade” program (she skated to it herself), and her influence showed. They had fine edge quality and their connection with each other could be seen way up in the rafters.
“I just could not wait to get out there,” Denney said, unable to stop smiling. “It was a lot of fun, and we just enjoyed the moment.”
When they finished, Denney crossed herself and then punched the air, her smile lighting up the entire arena. Peterson was overcome with emotion at the boards, burying his head in fellow coach Alison Smith’s shoulder.
“They’re so good right now,” Baldwin said. “They’re already at the top of their game.”
And it got better.
Ladwig and Evora — who is Barrett’s longtime girlfriend — put on an emotional and inspiring performance of their own that had the audience on its feet before they even finished.
“It has been a lifelong dream. I actually worked in Salt Lake as a volunteer, and all week I’ve been carrying my participation medal,” Ladwig said, pulling the bronze-colored medal out of its purple case. “It says, ‘Light the fire within.’ I still have my original volunteer gear under the bed. Maybe it’s time to break it out so the wife can wear it in Vancouver.”
Another local pair, Tracy Tanovich, of Bradenton, and Michael Chau, of Parrish, finished in 11th place.
—Herald sports writer Ryan T. Boyd contributed to this report.