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U.S. men test Canadian water

Andrew Poje and Kaitlyn Weaver perform their free dance routine at Skate Canada.
Andrew Poje and Kaitlyn Weaver perform their free dance routine at Skate Canada. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(01/17/2008) - American ice dancer Augie Hill wishes he had never won a bronze medal as a junior in international competition four-plus years ago. In fact, he said, he would rather have come last in that long ago event than have to swallow his current situation.

Hill partnered with Canadian Lauren Senft last spring intending to vie for a spot on Canada's Four Continents and World Championships teams this week in Vancouver. But, according to the new U.S. Figure Skating rules which require a lengthy cooling-off period after winning an international medal, Hill will not be released to compete for Canada until the fall of 2008.

Undaunted, the 22-year-old Texan launched his Canadian nationals career here on Wednesday with a seventh-place ranking in the ice dance opener. There is only a 3.5-point spread between second and seventh place heading into the original dance Thursday night.

Hill, whose best finish at U.S. Nationals was a third place in junior with Kimmerly Lauten in 2005, did not compete last season in any country.

Fellow American Kevin O'Keefe also made his Canadian championships debut today with Siobhan Karam, scoring fourth-place marks for their Yankee Polka. Unlike Hill, however, O'Keefe never did win a medal in an international event and is eligible to compete for Canada this season if the new pairing can snag a top-three result just as Texas native Kaitlyn Weaver did a year ago.

Weaver and her partner Andrew Poje, won the bronze Wednesday, a fraction of a point behind Allie Hann-McCurdy and Michael Coreno.

As expected, the almost-impossible-to-beat Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, sixth in the world last season, outdistanced the rest of the field by a whopping 7.4 points.

Shae-Lynn Bourne, who earned a record 10 Canadian titles with her partner Victor Kraatz, who was actually born in Germany, said: "It's a challenge for anybody to find a partner these days and it's hard if you can only look within your country and you want to find your perfect match.

"It's not easy to find the quality that you want that might be in your neighborhood and you have to look elsewhere," added Bourne, the 2003 world champion, who is now coaching Weaver and Poje along with U.S. coach Mathew Gates. "I'm not surprised by it. It's been many years it's happened in other countries. As long as you have time and can follow the rules to represent the country, I'm all for it."

As far as people here can recall, Hill and O'Keefe are making Canadian figure skating history this week as it is the first time two U.S. men have been on this country's ice dance roster for nationals. One American man, Anthony Evans, did compete at Canadians in 2005 and 2006, although he was not a contender for the podium or national team status.

Although his Team Canada aspirations have been delayed, Hill is serious about representing Canada in the future. He has an apartment in Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit, and he, like Weaver, recently attained his permanent resident status.

Both of them will now put the wheels in motion to obtain citizenship which would be needed if they were to compete for Canada at the 2010 Olympic Games. Coincidently, the Games will be held in the same venue where this week's championship is being contested.

Both Hill and O'Keefe train in Canton, Michigan, with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, who also coach Virtue and Moir. The Canadian duo, who have been an on-ice couple since elementary school, have designs on Olympic gold in 2010.

Zoueva is here this week, while Shpilband stayed home to prepare Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as well as a third senior couple, three junior and one novice duo, for next week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Hill is well-known in the ice dance world as the creator of the popular website Ice Partner Search, which he launched at age 17 to help ice dancers find new matches.

"Networking didn't work very well. When I made it there was no such thing as My Space or Facebook and I kind of wished I had broadened the market a little bit," said Hill, who holds a degree in computer engineering. "It does exactly the same stuff as those two. I missed the market a bit but it has been very useful to a lot of people."

Ironically, Hill hooked up with Senft not through his website but just by being in the right place at the right time. Even though he didn't have a partner, Hill moved to Michigan after finishing his four years at the University of Dallas because he liked the facility and coaches in Canton. When Senft and her partner Leif Gislason split after the 2007 Four Continents, Hill stepped in to fill her suddenly blank dance card.

As for his unusual first name, Hill explains that "Augie" is short for a family name "August." His parents always called him Augie although his given name is James.

This week, Canadian figure skating fans will serve up their usual warm welcome to the two newcomers. It should be an experience that Hill and O'Keefe won't soon forget.