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Detroit team surprises junior field at Indy

New duo -- Sheikh, Van Cleave -- win free skate

New duo Ameena Sheikh and Aaron Van Cleave won with a romantic free skate.
New duo Ameena Sheikh and Aaron Van Cleave won with a romantic free skate. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/10/2008) - She's only skated pairs for four months, but Ameena Sheikh has found her calling.

"I was really nervous going into our program," said the 18-year-old skater. "But I just got right into character and kept pushing through. I love doing pairs."

Performing to the haunting strains of the motion picture soundtrack Somewhere in Time, Sheikh and partner Aaron Van Cleave presented a romantic routine highlighted by solid lifts and spins. Choreographed by former ice dancer Pasquale Camerlengo, the evocative program featured musical steps and creative "in-between" movements. Although Sheikh fell on a triple Salchow, the duo landed side-by-side double Axel-double loop combinations as well as a throw double Salchow and throw triple loop.

Sheikh and Van Cleave earned 84.97 points, some four-and-a-half points over the rest of the junior field at the 2008 Indy Pairs Challenge. Their maturity was reflected in their program components scores (42.92 points), the highest of the event.

"That was only their second time out with this program. They also competed at Skate Detroit, but it was like night and day," said Maria Lako-Pinkowski, who coaches the pair with Steve Hartsell and Jason Dungjen at the Detroit Skating Club. The couple placed last in a field of six in Detroit.

The 21-year-old Van Cleave, who holds dual U.S./Canadian citizenship, represented Canada at the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid last season with his former partner, Sarah McCoy. He also competed in singles. Sheikh qualified for the 2005 U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a novice lady.

Their next competition will be Oktoberfest in Barrie, Ontario, followed by the 2009 Midwestern Sectional Championships, where they hope to qualify for the 2009 U.S. Championships.

Skating to music from the motion picture soundtrack City Slickers, Brynn Carman and Chris Knierim opened with a breathtaking triple twist, followed by a throw double Salchow and impressive one-arm Axel lasso lift that earned Level 4. Although the 13-year-old Carman had problems with her jumps, they earned 80.46 points, good enough for second place.

"I thought it went really well; it was fun and energetic," the 20-year-old Knierim said. "We've had this program a few years, but since it's our first JGP this fall [in Mexico City], we wanted to keep something we were comfortable with. We've got the western outfits; we're playing with guns during the footwork sequences and what not."

The couple, whose quadruple twist lift has become well-known, thanks to practice footage posted on YouTube, will not be trying the difficult maneuver in competition any time soon.

"She's been going through a growth spurt. Right now, she's on what I call her 'Bambi legs,'" their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, said. "It takes time to catch up. It's a timing issue, and it can become dangerous. They have such a good triple twist, I tell her, 'Finish your growth spurt and development.'"

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir showed strong lifts with good ice coverage, opening their program to the motion picture soundtrack Gladiator with a superb Level 4 Axel lasso lift that gained an astounding 8.50 points. Castelli fell on the throw triple Salchow and two-footed the landing of the throw double Axel, but their 79.47 points put them third.

U.S. junior silver medalists Tracy Tanovich and Michael Chau, who won yesterday's junior short program, were sixth in the free. Their elegant routine to the classic ballet "Le Corsaire" had solid lifts, but Tanovich stepped out of the landings on the throw triple toe and loop.

Four of the U.S. age-eligible junior pairs who competed at Indy have already been assigned Junior Grand Prix events. Whether they receive a second event depends upon their placement at their first. Generally, if they finish in the top four, they will gain a second assignment.

"All we can do is skate well and hope for the best," Shnapir, who will compete at the JGP Czech Republic, said. "Whether we're selected or not is out of our control, to an extent. We just have to go and do our thing."

Brittany Chase and Andrew Speroff, who performed a newly choreographed routine to Albioni's "Adagio," were seventh in Sunday's free skate. They have been assigned to the JGP Mexico. Tenth-place finishers Kloe Bautista and Galvani Hopson, who are coached by two-time Olympic bronze medalist Lloyd Eisler, will compete at the JGP Czech Republic with Shnapir and Castelli.

Sylvia Yu contributed to this report.