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McLaughlin, Brubaker believe in themselves

'To be a champion, you must believe you can do it first'

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker share a hug as they skate off the ice after their free skate at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker share a hug as they skate off the ice after their free skate at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Jo Ann Schneider Farris, special to icenetwork.com
(02/16/2008) - In February of 2006, just two years ago, pairs coach Dalilah Sappenfeld arranged a tryout between Keauna McLaughlin and Sappenfeld's skater, Rockne Brubaker. Three years earlier, Rockne had moved from the Chicago area to Colorado Springs to train with Sappenfeld and skate with Mariel Miller. Miller and Brubaker went on to win the U.S. junior pairs title in 2005, but there was a potential problem. Rockne might eventually need a different partner, since he was only 5 feet 9 inches tall, and Mariel was still growing. In fact, Miller eventually outgrew Brubaker.

Sappenfeld had seen McLaughlin skate at previous events and recognized potential in the young girl. The coach believed that Keauna could become a pairs skating champion. Five minutes into the tryout, something "clicked." Keauna and Rockne looked as if they'd been skating together for years. Quickly a decision was made that they would become a pairs team.

Big changes were made in McLaughlin's life. A month later, the 13-year-old moved from the Los Angeles area to Colorado and temporarily moved in with the Sappenfeld family. Keauna and Rockne quickly became close friends, even though there was a considerable difference in their ages. Rockne is very protective of Keauna and treats her like a younger sister, and Sappenfeld is like a second parent to both. During the summer of 2006, Keauna's mother Lei Ina McLaughlin, a former pairs and adagio skater with Disney on Ice, began making regular trips to Colorado and assisting Sappenfeld with the teaching of the team. Plans were made to eventually move the entire McLaughlin family to Colorado.

Brubaker had had international experience, so he had to show patience and trust his coach as she worked to bring McLaughlin's moves to a level equal to the new challenge. Keauna had only been doing side-by-side double Axels with her previous partner, but soon, the new team was doing throw triple jumps, side-by-side triple jumps, triple twists, high-level spins, and other challenging moves. Both skaters had to work hard under a great deal of pressure to meet the challenge.

Sappenfeld believed that the pair could become champions. She forced the team to adapt a new motto: "To be a champion, you must believe you can do it first." It became the team's motivating principle as they trained each day. McLaughlin and Brubaker believed that they could win, and win they did. In 2007, their first year together, they became both the U.S. and world junior pairs champions. Then this year, after skating together for just two years, they won gold at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, becoming the first team in 51 years to win consecutive junior and senior pairs titles.

Since McLaughlin is still too young to compete at the world championships, winning the U.S. pairs title seemed "just like another competition" to the team. The reality of being the United States national champions didn't really "set in" until a call came from Smucker's Stars on Ice during the first week of February. They were invited to be guest stars for the show's Denver performance. Coach Sappenfield realized they'd accomplished something exceptional when the invitation came.

The skaters were excited too. When asked how it felt to be invited, Keauna said she never thought she'd be asked to do something so special. Rockne was also honored. Neither skater was nervous about skating alongside figure skating celebrities. Keauna said, "They are just ordinary people."

The team decided to perform their standard exhibition program, which had been choreographed by Keauna's mother and finished off with Sappenfeld's expertise.

McLaughlin had been in Los Angeles for a brief break, but plans were changed. She flew back to Colorado just a few days before the performance, and the pair resumed their regular training schedule.

Wednesday, February 13, started just like any training day. The team did some off-ice exercises and then skated their usual practice sessions at the Colorado Springs World Arena. After lunch, they left for Denver and arrived at the Pepsi Center at around 3:30 p.m. They warmed up off the ice and then practiced their exhibition program as if they were performing at any ordinary exhibition or show. Coach Sappenfield worked with them from the sidelines.

The show began at 7:00 p.m., and after an opening number by the regular Stars on Ice cast, 1996 world champion Todd Eldredge introduced the new champions to the Denver audience. The audience cheered as the team came onto the ice. Some of the highlights of their program included a huge throw triple loop, a triple twist, a death spiral with change of hands, and a long lift in which Brubaker carried McLaughlin high over his head across most of the width and length of the arena.

When the team completed their routine, there was loud applause from the audience, and the fans wanted more. The team didn't skate again in the show but were once again introduced in the finale. It was announced during the show that much is expected from this team and that the 2010 Olympics could be in their future.

First, the pair wants to win worlds, and with their winning attitude, all things are possible.