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Manatee’s skaters perform tonight in Vancouver

He drove the Zamboni and worked the snack bar at the Ellenton ice rink to pay for his training. Her playpen was a roller rink in Ocala, called Skate Mania.

Such were the beginnings of an unlikely path to the Olympics for Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who will skate tonight in the pairs short program at the Vancouver Games.

“I bet, looking back in the history of Olympic athletes, a lot more would have come from those type of settings and worked that hard to accomplish those goals,” says Lyndon Johnston, former Olympian and skating school director at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, where Barrett worked the snack bar.

What sets Denney and Barrett apart is they are the first Olympic figure skaters born and developed in Florida. Their victory at nationals last month capped a rapid ascent in less than two years of skating together.

Now Ellenton is the surprise epicenter of pairs figure skating in the country. The other U.S. entry, Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora, also trains there with the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club.

“I wanted to live and work in paradise,” said Johnston, explaining why he left Canada and set up a grassroots training program on the Gulf Coast 18 years ago. “It doesn’t matter where you are, if you have good ice and good coaching you can be a national champion.”

Johnston skated pairs for Canada in two Olympics and placed second in the 1989 World Championships. Working with veteran international-level coaches Jim Peterson and Alison Smith (she coached Olympic champion John Curry), they have built a program that rivals any in the country.

Ellenton also claimed the 11th-place pair at the 2010 nationals, and Denney’s younger sister, Haven, teamed with Daniel Raad to win the U.S. junior pairs title.

“We are proud to be the first Florida-born skaters in Olympic history,” says Barrett, 25. “The facility in Ellenton is great. ... I spent many years working at the snack bar, driving the Zamboni and bagging groceries at Publix next door to help pay for my training. It was all worth it.”

Denney, only 16, started in roller skating. Both her parents were national champions on wheels, and her earliest memories are of the roller rink.

Ladwig and Evora were a bit of a surprise in grabbing the second Olympic berth.

Ladwig, from Fargo, N.D., worked as a volunteer at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Evora, from New York, is a business major at USF-Sarasota Manatee. She is Barrett’s longtime girlfriend.

Tonight’s short program

Two-time Olympic bronze medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are up first in the pairs short program. Experts say that’s probably where they’ll finish the night, too.

Returning from a two-year layoff for one last run at an elusive Olympic gold medal, the Chinese have been simply brilliant this year. They’ve won each of their competitions by huge margins. The Grand Prix final had the most stacked field outside of the Olympics, and Shen and Zhao blew away the field by a dozen points.

Two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, of Germany, figure to give Shen and Zhao the toughest test. The Germans won the last two world championships with such ease, they could have skipped the second half of their free skate and still been on top.

As for the Americans, there’s no worry about intimidation. Reminded that Shen and Zhao have been skating together as long as she’s been alive, Denney shrugs.

“When I step onto that ice,” she said, “we’re all on the same level.”

— The South Florida Sun Sentinel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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