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McLaughlin, Brubaker tough it out for second U.S. title

Upstarts Denney, Barrett steal the show but win silver; Inoue, Baldwin take bronze

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker won their second U.S. title in January.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker won their second U.S. title in January. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/24/2009) - The crowd wasn't happy about it, but Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker won their second straight U.S. pair title, edging out surprise short program winners Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett by 2.49 points.

"A lot of people told us before the competition that we might be five-time consecutive champions, but the second win will be the hardest," Brubaker, 22, said.

Turns out those folks were right. With the 16-year-old McLaughlin battling the flu all week, the couple struggled to get through their free skate to music from West Side Story, choreographed last summer by Lea Ann Miller.

"There [were] definitely moments in my program when I thought, 'I can't do this,'" McLaughlin said. "I thought, 'Just let me stop, let me have a breather, let me have a trash can.'

"But I just kept going. I don't know how I did it, but I got through it, and I'm really happy it's over with."

The program was not without mistakes, including Brubaker's miss on a triple Salchow-double toe combination and McLaughlin's fall on a triple toe loop. Denney and Barrett's routine was cleaner, but the defending champs' higher program components scores -- 59.48 to 54.91 for Denney and Barrett -- put them over the top, and the Colorado Springs-based couple ended the event with 178.76 points.

"It's not just about hitting that element every time," Brubaker said. "[The judges] really look at the big picture and the entire performance of the program.

"Sometimes people may go, how did they get the score that they got? And that was kind of like how it was for Keauna and I [internationally] last season. We were doing clean programs, but we really hadn't driven into getting into character in our programs and the choreography and transitions. That's something we tried to do this season."

Although Denney and Barrett's performance to selections from Spartacus had a clean, side-by-side triple toe loop-double toe loop sequence and two solid triple throws, including a flip, their coach had to agree with Brubaker's assessment.

"I think the result is accurate," said Jim Peterson, who trains the team in Ellenton, Fla. "Keauna and Rockne are a brilliant team, and I know the goal for whoever [U.S. Skating] sends [to worlds] -- and I hope it's my team -- is to [qualify] three pairs for the Vancouver Olympics, and I feel that the top two teams here can do that."

Denney and Barrett, who originally paired up in 2006 but split for 18 months before re-teaming last summer, were more than satisfied with the silver medal.

"The goal for me and Jeremy was to skate two solid programs, the best we could, to the best of our abilities," Denney said. "Placing would have been a bonus. Being in second and maybe going to worlds, I don't know if it's sunk in yet, but it's awesome."

"The ultimate goal is [the Olympics] a year from now, and we're only going to get better," added the 24-year-old Barrett.

Denney was born on June 22, 1993. Were she just a few weeks younger, she would not meet the International Skating Union age-eligibility requirement and could not be named to the U.S. World Team.

"The result was secondary; the performance was the primary goal," Peterson said. "We missed a revolution in the pair spin, and it dropped to a Level 3 instead of getting a Level 4, but that's about it. I couldn't ask more from a team with the time they've had to prepare for this competition. They were brilliant."

Two-time U.S. pair champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin placed third with 171.08 points.

"For Rena and I, tonight was a satisfactory performance. It wasn't a memorable performance," Baldwin, 35, said. "Of course, last year, with the [on-ice marriage] proposal, that would have been hard to top."

Baldwin, who has competed at every U.S. Championships since 1986, with the exception of 1988, faltered on both a triple toe loop and one of the team's two double Axels.

"I lost a little steam with whatever I did on the triple toe, two-footed it and under-rotated it," he said. "I thought the lifts and throws were really well done. The outcome I'm very satisfied with, and I think the two best teams are going to worlds."

U.S. Figure Skating will select two pairs to represent the country at the upcoming 2009 ISU Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. Although it is not obligated to do so, it is usually guided by results at the U.S. Championships.

Another Ellenton pair, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, climbed from sixth after the short program to fourth overall with a strong free skate that featured the most spectacular lifts of the event.

"It just felt so good to skate up to how we know we can skate," Evora said. "We've been skating together for seven years, and to be able to skate like that in front of an audience, it doesn't matter what place you get."

2007 U.S. champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski placed sixth in the free skate and fifth overall with 157.01 points.