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McLaughlin, Brubaker win with sophisticated skate

U.S. champs' "Malaguena" program pushes them to the top

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig finished second in the short program with 58.18 points.
Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig finished second in the short program with 58.18 points. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/10/2008) - Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker have always been superb athletes, including a soaring triple twist and solid throws in their programs in the past. But when the U.S. champions sought out a professional choreographer for the first time and created two new programs with Lea Ann Miller this spring, they knew they were in for a challenge.

"Everything is a work in progress," the pair's coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, said.

Improvement has been swift, as the duo won the short program event at the 2008 Indy Pairs Challenge on Saturday with 62.65 points, beating out a strong senior field that featured six of the top ten U.S. pairs.

Performing to the familiar "Malaguena," McLaughlin and Brubaker showed style and maturity in their two opening Level 4 elements, the pair combination spin and hand-to-hip lift. Their side-by-side triple Salchows were solid, and although they lost a bit of unison on their side-by-side spins, they recovered with a solid triple twist and a Level 4 spiral sequence. Their only major mistake was McLaughlin's flawed landing on the throw triple loop.

"That was definitely a lot better than at the Broadmoor Open [in late June]," Sappenfield said. "We made some changes, and we will probably make more. We might move the twist so it's not so late in the program.

"This season, the focus is really on improving their expression and program components [scores]. They've never skated to Spanish music before. It's a different feeling for them, and it's a lot of work."

The 22-year-old Brubaker, who won the 2007 world junior title with his 15-year-old partner, agreed.

"This was a step in the right direction," he said. "We're still trying to figure out the pattern and the choreography. That's why we do these summer competitions, to get comfortable. Our next [event] is Skate America in October, so we have plenty of time and it's not a problem."

Brubaker added that he and McLaughlin planned to return to Miller to polish their routines.

"We're going to see her again in a month to put the finishing touches [on the programs]. We love working with her."

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, fifth at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, followed up their strong performances at the recent Liberty Open with another solid showing. They took second with 58.18 points.

With the Beijing Games just underway, the couple wore Olympic colors and skated to Olympic-themed music by Yanni. Although their triple Salchows were downgraded, they made up the deficit with a solid triple twist and excellent throw triple loop.

"Their high grades of execution and clear Level 4 elements are a commodity," Jim Peterson, the team's primary coach and choreographer, said. "Even if the Salchows are not there, the quality of their skating keeps them up."

"There are so many great teams here; it's like a mini-nationals," added the 25-year-old Evora, who has skated with her 28-year-old partner since 2002. "Even with the mistake [on the Salchows], we've had a lot of improvements. We've changed the catch on the [triple] twist; it's at the hip now."

2007 U.S. champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski were close behind with 57.98 points, just .20 out of second.

The Canton, Mich.-based duo performed their short to music from the motion picture soundtrack Memoirs of a Geisha, beautifully choreographed by Marina Zoueva to emphasize the couple's emotional connection and showcase the elegant Castile.

They opened with side-by-side triple Salchows; Castile turned out of the landing, but the jumps were not downgraded. Although she fell on the landing of the throw triple loop, the rest of the program was solid, including four Level 4 elements: the lift, side-by-side combination spins, pair spin and spiral sequence.

"For this early in the season and where we're at with our training, it was good," the 22-year-old Castile said. "Our goal was to do the triple [Salchows] in the program, and that's what we did."

Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin placed fourth with 54.46 points, impressing the judges with their short to Saint-Saëns' "Dying Swan," choreographed by Zuzanna Szwed.

The program featured outstanding side-by-side triple Salchows, a throw triple Salchow and an impressive lift with a one-arm entry. The team, however, ran short on time and had to rush through their final two elements (the death spiral and pair spin), dropping them to Level 1.

"It flowed very nicely," the 18-year-old Yankowskas said. "We re-arranged the elements and changed the triple toes to triple Salchows, which I'm ecstatic about."

"We'll have to adjust the program [for timing]," Sappenfield, who coaches the couple, said. "That's what's great about doing summer competitions; you learn quickly."