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Senior pairs event is wide open

Veterans and newcomers fight for gold

Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski
Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski ()

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2008) - If there was an injured reserve list in figure skating, most of the top U.S. pairs would have been on it earlier this season.

U.S. champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski: out with sciatic (Castile). Bronze medalists Naomi Nari Nam and Themistocles Leftheris: out with a hip injury (Nam). World junior champions Keauna McLaughln and Rockne Brubaker: withdrew from the Grand Prix Final after Brubaker came down with a foot infection. Two-time U.S. champions Rene Inoue and John Baldwin: missing in action.

With so many question marks, the title looks to be there for the taking by the team that skates two solid programs in Saint Paul.

Just ask Doug Ladret, the former Canadian pair champion who coaches Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent, the couple who landed the first-ever throw quadruple jump in competition at Trophee Eric Bompard in November.

"I think they have a great chance here," Ladret said. "They're coming in to the competition in good shape, on a big high."

While others struggle with injury, Vise and Trent, who paired up in July 2003, have polished their routines.

"We've been tinkering with a few things in their programs, to help us get more points," Ladret said. "On the lifts, we've changed the timing of hand releases to get an extra feature, and we've made the spin positions more precise."

That's fine, but all anyone seems to want to talk about is their throw quad Salchow, the stunning element they hit with such explosiveness in Paris.

"I think we're ready with the quad," the 27-year-old Trent said. "We've really trained it, and we're planning to do it here in the free. It's a lot more consistent now than it was early in the season. We've finally figured out what to do on the take-off."

"I just wish we could do it in the short program, too, but the rules don't allow that," the 21-year-old Vise added. "Hopefully, that will change next season."

The skaters don't want to dwell on the move, preferring to focus on the overall flow of their Les Miserables free skate.

"The quad is just one more thing; we think of it as just another element," Vise said.

Quad aside, the team's success in Saint Paul may hinge upon its ability to land a much more mundane maneuver: its side-by-side triple toe loops. The jumps have spelled trouble for the two in the past, especially Trent.

"Tiffany landed four in a row at practice today; Derek did sit down on two," Ladret admitted yesterday. "It is a big thing for them."

"I did (the triple toe) in France in the short program, I did it at Skate Canada, and I'll do it here," Trent vowed.

Inoue and Baldwin Come Back for More

After placing eighth at the 2007 World Championships, it looked like two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin might call it a day.

But after spending much of the summer and fall performing in shows, the veteran duo -- she is 31, he is 34 -- returned to training in the greater Los Angeles area. In November, they decided to compete in Saint Paul, and worked with Phillip Mills to create two new programs.

"I really needed a break after last season; I was ready to be done," Inoue said. "Doing those shows helped me get my love of skating back."

Baldwin, a former long-time singles skater who is competing at his 20th consecutive U.S. Championships (22nd total), said he was enticed by the opportunity to test himself yet again.

"We both thought, 'Why not?'" he said. "Neither of us has had anything else in our lives that gives us such a challenge."

Since arriving in Saint Paul, the couple has practiced its famous throw triple Axel, with mixed results. Baldwin said they're not planning to try element in their short program, but hope to hit it in their free skate.

Peter Oppegard, who had coached the couple the last two seasons, said he didn't hear from them after the 2007 Worlds.

"I don't think it's a secret; Rena really didn't want to continue," he said. "John was on the fence for a few months. I really didn't want to be a part of convincing somebody to compete. It was a personal decision between the two of them."

Oppegard also felt his influence with the couple had come to an end.

"In reality, during my second year with them, Johnny was very interested in becoming the coach, which was fine with me," he said. "I can understand that, and I wish them the best. For both of us, it was the right decision.

"When I didn't hear from them, I called them after two months, just to have some closure."

Nam Fights Back from Hip Injury

Coaching issues and battle fatigue were not a problem for Oppegard's other top senior pair, Nam and Leftheris, who placed third at the 2007 U.S. Championships.

The 22-year-old Nam, who won the U.S. ladies silver medal at the 1999 U.S. Championships behind Michelle Kwan, underwent a hip operation last July. The skater couldn't put any weight on her feet for eight weeks, walking with the aid of crutches.

It was the same injury that led Nam to abandon her singles career after failing to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Championships. She began skating pairs with Leftheris in 2005.

"She's still not fully recovered," Oppegard said. "She's been fighting a timetable to come back in time for Nationals, but she's really only at 50 percent strength. Still, Naomi's 50 percent is better than some skaters' 75-100 percent."

Usually a strong jumper, one of Nam's biggest challenges is consistency on the triple toe loop.

"She had surgery on her inside (hip) joint; all the cartilage was removed, and it takes the muscles time to recover," Oppegard explained. "Sometimes her muscles explode with a big jump, sometimes they don't. But we're planning to do the toes in both programs.

"The triple twist is a question mark; that will be a game-day decision. They have such a nice double twist; they can get a lot of points with that."

Oppegard said that if determination is its own reward, Nam will persevere.

"She deserves this so much," he said. "During the fall Grand Prix season, she would call me up and analyze the elements, saying, 'I can do this, I can do that,' and talk about the points. Up until a week and a half ago, we were still changing the order of the elements in the programs, because of the hip. We tried to find the sequence that would give Naomi the best percentage of success."

World Junior Champs Ready to Step Up

Brubaker threw a scare into his partner, McLaughlin, and coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, when he developed cellulitis (severe inflammation) in his left foot at the Grand Prix Final in December.

But after aggressive treatment at Colorado Springs Olympic Center, the 21-year-old skater is ready to fight for the title in Saint Paul.

"I would say I'm at 100%," said Brubaker. "It's still painful, but I pad it up quite a bit for those two-a-day training sessions. I'm spending two to three hours a day getting it better."

Brubaker's remedies are a laundry list of today's hottest treatments: ultrasound, deep tissue massage, cold plunges, acupuncture, therapy mobility.

"It's been a lot," he laughed. "We took three weeks off after the Final, but we've been training full blast for three and a half weeks now.

"It was disappointing to pull out; I was begging the team doctor to numb me up so I could skate. But my foot was so swollen I couldn't walk, and a medal there was not as rewarding as possibly winning nationals."

McLaughlin and Brubaker like their chances for gold, but no matter their finish, they will not get a trip to the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. Under ISU rules, McLaughlin, born on Sept. 25, 1992, is too young to compete.

"Of course we would love to go to Worlds, but maybe it's a blessing in disguise," McLaughlin said. "It gives us another year to grow and progress as a team."

Making the best of the situation, the skaters will take care of other issues after competing in Saint Paul. First, McLaughlin will have her troublesome tonsils removed; then, the team will meet with several choreographers, including Lori Nichol, Lea Ann Miller and David Wilson, to discuss possible programs for next season.

"I think Dalilah has given us good programs in the past, but bringing in a choreographer will help us kind of bring out our expression more," Brubaker said, adding that improved artistry could be the key to ascending the world podium in future seasons.

"U.S. pairs have kind of been looked down upon," he said. "For many years, Russian and Chinese pairs have been the best. I've watched videos of (Xue) Shen and (Hongbo) Zhao, and they're one of the best teams I've ever seen. They deserve all of their titles.

"What they have, that others don't, is that special connection with each other. All of the top teams do the elements fairly well, but what sets them apart is the way they handle the in-between skating. That's what makes them such great champions, and that's what we have to work on now."

Defending Champs Return to Ice

Castile and Okolski, who unexpectedly won the U.S. title in Spokane last season, arrive here as huge question marks.

They haven't competed since placing 12th at the 2007 World Championships, and little has been heard from them in months. But the duo, best known for its high-flying triple twist, look forward to putting itself to the test in Saint Paul.

"Nationals is the most exciting and rewarding competition of the year," the 21-year-old Castile said. "We don't feel any pressure. We love coming here and competing to win another title.

"I actually think it's a pretty strong field this year, but hopefully we'll be able to push our limits and end up on top."

The couple, who train at the Arctic Blades FSC under Johnny Johns and Marina Zoueva, has a lot to overcome. Castile spent much of the summer and early fall unable to train full out.

The petite skater said the trouble began in July, when "my whole left side sort of went [numb]. [The pain] started with my sciatic nerve and went down through the LCL. I took weeks off and went through a lot of physical therapy."

The injury forced the U.S. champions to skip the fall Grand Prix season, but gave them additional time to work on two new routines, both choreographed by Zoueva: a short program to music from the soundtrack of the spaghetti western L'Arena, and free skate to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade".

"We were always a good physical match, but now I feel we're more connected on the ice," the 23-year-old Okolski said. "We've really worked on showing more emotion out there."

"I loved the whole creative process of working through both of these programs, especially the free," added Castile. "We've concentrated on the emotion and intensity, and the in-between moves as well as the elements."

One thing the couple will not show is side-by-side triple toe loops, jumps it struggled with in the past. They will go a more conservative route and execute double Axels.

"We've been successful (with the Axels) in the past, and they've been going well in practice," Okolski explained. "Now is just not the time to make the change."