Ellenton pairs skaters shine at nationals

SPOKANE, Wash. — Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett had plenty of fire. The rest of the top American pairs? Utter flameouts.

Last year’s surprise silver medalists attacked their short program with confidence and attitude Friday, something the rest of the field might want to try. Two-time defending champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker were disastrous, making two major errors and a couple of smaller bobbles and tumbling all the way to seventh place heading into Saturday’s free skate. 2006 Olympians Rena Inoue and John Baldwin weren’t much better.

Safe to say the Chinese and Germans won’t be losing sleep over this stumblefest.

Denney and Barrett have 63.01 points, about a point in front of Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, whose best finish at nationals was sixth two years ago. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, fourth last year, are third heading into Saturday’s free skate. Inoue and Baldwin are fourth, while McLaughlin and Brubaker are a whopping 10-plus points behind Denney and Barrett.

Who says skating results are predictable?

“I’m not going to lie, I’m upset,” said McLaughlin, who fell on their side-by-side triple salchows and fell on their death spiral. “I’ve got a fire lit inside of me. I’m going to go out and be aggressive, and I’m not going out without a fight.”

She’d better if she and Brubaker want to make it to Vancouver next month. The United States can send only two pairs to the Olympics, though selection is based on several events, not just results at nationals.

“I was disappointed,” coach John Nicks said. “It did not go as well as hoped; it did not go as well as planned.”

Denney and Barrett, meanwhile, have the look of a team on a mission — right down to those flame-red extensions in her hair.

The duo pulled off a major upset last season, winning the silver medal after all of six months together. That’s a stunning ascent in a sport where it usually takes years to develop the seamless unison and chemistry of a champion pair, and they continued to soar Friday.

“We felt pretty comfortable out there. And surprisingly very calm,” Barrett said. “So we’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

They look as if they’ve been together for a decade, landing their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps in perfect sync and right on the beat of the music. They were a little out-of-unison at the beginning of their side-by-side spins, yet looked like mirror images after only two revolutions.

But what really sets Denney and Barrett apart is their power, strength and go-for-broke attitude. There are plenty of skaters who would back off and play it safe in an Olympic year. Not these two. They’re still doing a throw triple flip, a jump few couples try because it’s so hard to get the hang time that makes it look cool.

And Denney must be part cat. She was crooked in the air of the flip, yet landed it with textbook ease.

“Caydee doesn’t really miss too many throws, even if she’s in a lean,” Barrett said. “She’s just so used to landing them.”

The tough tricks don’t slow them down, either. They flew around the rink like that mythical Firebird, the music they skated to.

“I love doing pairs so much, I want to show everyone what we can do,” Denney said. “It’s fun.”

Yankowskas and Coughlin had a ball, too. They landed all of their elements, their only noticeable error an out-of-sync side-by-side combination spin. Evora stepped out of their side-by-side triple toe loops and had to take a step forward when she couldn’t hold the landing on the throw triple loop.

Asked how the two relatively unknown couples will fare against the veterans behind them, Ladwig answered for him and Evora and Yankowskas and Coughlin.

“We are veterans,” Ladwig said.

Indeed, they were able to handle the pressure, unlike McLaughlin-Brubaker and Inoue-Baldwin.

McLaughlin and Brubaker started strong, doing a gorgeous split triple twist that sent her soaring high above the ice. But that was their lone highlight. In addition to her falls, he had a slight misstep on their footwork, and they were going in completely different directions as they came out of their side-by-side spins.

“We’ve been practicing really well all week. But after the mistake on the salchows, we got a little tentative,” Brubaker said. “You can’t skate afraid.”

Inoue and Baldwin broke out their throw triple axel for the first time in two seasons, but Inoue slipped off her edge as she landed, sending her tumbling to the ice. And Baldwin found a new way to mess up in his 24th appearance at the national championships — counting his singles career, he’s been coming since 1986 — stepping out of their side-by-side combination spin.

US Figure Skating Championships Results

Spokane, Wash.

Senior Pairs

Short Program

1. Caydee Denney, Wesley Chapel, and Jeremy Barrett, Venice, 63.01 points.

2. Caitlin Yankowskas, Pelham, N.H., and John Coughlin, Kansas City, Mo., 62.09.

3. Amanda Evora, Bradenton, and Mark Ladwig, Parrish, 58.76.

4. Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, Santa Monica, Calif., 57.77.

5. Brooke Castile, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., and Ben Okolski, Ann Arbor, Mich., 55.64.

6. Amanda Dobbs, Riverside, Calif., and Joseph Jacobsen, Lake Arrowhead, Calif., 55.32.

7. Keauna McLaughlin, Los Angeles, and Rockne Brubaker, Algonquin, Ill., 52.55.

8. Molly Aaron, Scottsdale, Ariz., Daniyel Cohen, Waban, Mass., 52.19.

9. Tiffany Vise, Phoenix, and Don Baldwin, San Diego, 51.88.

10. Ameena Sheikh and Aaron VanCleave, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., 49.87.

11. Marissa Castelli, Cranston, R.I., and Simon Shnapir, Sudbury, Mass., 49.28.

12. Kendra Moyle, Chelsea, Mich., and Steven Pottenger, Dallas, 49.22.

13. Tracy Tanovich, Bradenton, and Michael Chau, Parrish, 49.00.

14. Andrea Best, Howell, Mich., and Trevor Young, West Bloomfield, Mich., 45.73.

15. Lisa Moore, Fort Collins, Colo., and Justin Gaumond, Littleton, Colo., 44.15.

16. Laura Lepzinski, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Ethan Burgess, Los Angeles, 42.47.