Rinkside at the 2009 U.S. Championships

Kwiatkowski joins broadcast team

Kiri Baga is coached by Lorie Charbonneau, whose daughter Kate is the new Canadian junior champion.
Kiri Baga is coached by Lorie Charbonneau, whose daughter Kate is the new Canadian junior champion. (Paul Harvath)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/19/2009) - There's a lot going on behind the scenes at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

New face on the Web

A familiar face has joined the on-camera talent this year.

"I did intermediate ladies for when junior nationals was at Strongsville, the practice rink here this week, and it was a lot of fun, so I'm glad to be back," said three-time U.S. medalist Tonia Kwiatkowski, who is delivering commentary for the novice and junior events.

Under the tutelage of 1960 Olympic champion Carol Heiss Jenkins and Glyn Watts, Kwiatkowski competed at 13 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Today, the 37-year-old coaches at both Strongsville and her own former training rink, Winterhurst, where she sees Heiss Jenkins daily.

"I was there when [U.S. Skating] did a walk-through of the rink to [prepare for] this week, and someone mentioned it, but I didn't hear for sure until I got an email three or four weeks ago," she said.

Kwiatkowski's reel stood out from those submitted, perhaps due to her prior experience and education at Baldwin-Wallace College.

"I have a communications degree and I've done worked for TV stations, including the last time nationals was here in 2000, so I'm comfortable with [the on-camera] aspect of it," she said.

"Dance, I'm a little nervous about. I took my dance tests, but I'm not as familiar with the free dances. Still, it's neat to step outside of your comfort zone and learn something new."

She spent several days cramming, reading up on skater bios and music choices.

"They sent me a huge book to study, and I've also picked up on a lot watching warm-ups and practices," she said. "They give you a good feel for the groups."

Preparing for this week brought back memories of her training days.

"It's always such an exciting week of skating. The public doesn't realize the stress the skaters are under, even at practices. Judges and other people are watching all the time, it's not just like going to the rink," she explained.

"[Senior men's competitor] Parker Pennington is [at Winterhurst] training with Carol again and I watched him last week and my stomach was in knots. I don't miss it."

Asked for a few standout memories of her many years competing, she paused.

"'95 nationals, winning the short, was huge," she said. "And I remember my first nationals, in '86, watching Tiffany Chin do a triple Axel in practice. There's just a lot of great stuff."

Tuff as nails

As a skater, Christine Hough was nicknamed "Tuffy" because, as one of her coaches said, "She's a tough little kid."

Nowadays, the former Canadian pair champion seems anything but formidable, especially when standing alongside students Olivia Gibbons and Tyler Harris, who placed third in the novice pairs' short program.

"This team is the only one you could really say I'm really a coach for; I don't coach full-time, because of my boys," the 39-year-old Hough, who married former Boston Bruins defenseman Don Sweeney in 1997, said. "I'm really more of a choreographer."

Hough-Sweeney and her partner, Doug Ladret, won seven Canadian national medals and competed at two Olympics before turning pro in 1992 and touring with Smucker's Stars on Ice for several years. They are fondly remembered by many fans for their high-flying, creative numbers, including a spoof of The Knack's "My Sharona."

These days, the attractive blonde's top priority is her family, including nine-year-old twins Jarrod and Tyler.

"They both play hockey, and one takes guitar lessons," she said.

Don spent 16 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL before retiring at the end of the 2003-2004 season. Currently, he is working as Director of Hockey Operations and Player Development for his former team.

"He has a big office," his wife laughed.

In addition to working with Boston-area coaches including Bobby Martin and Carrie Wall, who also train Gibbons and Harris, Hough choreographs programs for several pairs who work with former partner Ladret at his rink in Arizona. She has also created programs for Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, who will contend for the senior pair's title later this week.

"I am so, so lucky to be able to work with these skaters," Hough-Sweeney, who admitted she sometimes missed performing, said. "They bring me back to life and keep me young."

Skating is a small world

Kiri Baga, who won the novice ladies' short, is coached by Lorie Charbonneau, whose daughter Kate is the new Canadian junior champion.

David Kirby, the assistant technical specialist for the novice men's event, sits alongside Libby Scanlan, the technical specialist, this week. Scanlan coached Kirby to the 1972 U.S. novice title.

Four-time U.S. champion Charlie Tickner and Billy Schneider, who will sit on the technical panel for the senior event, competed against each other in the '70s. Billy named his son after Charlie.