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Team Image grabs intermediate gold at U.S. Synchros

The Colonials secure silver and 17th national intermediate medal

Team Image claimed the top spot in the intermediate category at the 2009 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships in Portland, Maine.
Team Image claimed the top spot in the intermediate category at the 2009 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships in Portland, Maine. (Paul Harvath )

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By Rebecca Staed, special to icenetwork.com
(03/05/2009) - It was a rehash of Eastern Sectionals in the intermediate competition at the 2009 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships in Portland, Maine, as Team Image clung to first place early on with a score of 64.55, while their sectional runners-up, The Colonials, earned 62.31 points for silver.

Team Image assistant coaches Lauren Hunt and Aly McGee said the team's low turnover in the last three years has allowed their athletes to mature and grow stronger together.

"The girls are very focused and charged and able to have efficient practices," said Hunt. "We have focused on getting as many points as we possibly can rather than on who we can beat."

Last year, Team Image celebrated a breakthrough after landing on the national podium for the first time ever with a pewter medal, but this year's win is somewhat bittersweet due to the absence of head coach Sylvia Muccio, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December and, thus, was unable to attend.

"It's a testament to Sylvia's coaching abilities that the girls were able to pull it out when their coach couldn't be here," said a team parent, Dana Johnson. "They wanted to do it for her."

Team Image nearly accomplished another goal of breaking 20 points with their program components score; they earned 19.78. The program, performed to music from Cirque du Soleil's "Kooza," was highlighted by a Level 4 circle, a Level 4 line that garnered a 1.14 Grade of Execution (GOE) and a clean Level 4 block to finish.

The silver medalist Colonials improved three spots upon last year's fifth-place finish. But for head coach Merita Mullen, who realized the strength of her toughest competitors, any spot on the podium, no matter the color medal, feels like a victory.

"I assessed my team and said, 'This is what I have, and I am going to max out what they can do but also play to their strength,'" Mullen said. "I take nothing for granted; I assume nothing. Anytime one of my teams is in the medal ceremony, I feel like I have won the Olympics."

Characteristically, Mullen, a 20-year veteran synchronized skating coach, focuses on helping her athletes bond as a team before cracking down on scores and outcomes. As a result, her intermediate teams have stood on the U.S. Championship podium for 17 years -- 16 of them consecutive.

"We had a lot of returning skaters, so I really wanted them to gel and appreciate each other so they could practice well together," she said. "They improved so much from event to event that I ramped up the choreography and started going after the math."

Skating second to last to love songs from the Moulin Rouge movie soundtrack, The Colonials opened strong with a Level 4 circle and earned the most points in the routine from a Level 4 block, immediately followed by a Level 4 wheel. Their 19.29 program component score was the second highest of the event.

Last year's silver medalist, Team del Sol took home bronze after collecting 60.37 points for their free skate to "Dust in the Wind" and "Great Balls of Fire," fire-themed accordingly in honor of the 2004 and 2007 San Diego wildfires that destroyed the homes of two team members as well as that of one athlete's grandmother.

"When you survive a fire, there is this rebirth and renewal," said head coach Karen Wiesmeier. "At first, it is panic and evacuation, and the air quality is unbelievably bad. But it's amazing to see how people can lose everything and come back and be so excited about life. It puts things into perspective.

"We pulled together as a team and took care of our skaters and their relatives that lost homes."

Team Del Sol was the only intermediate team to earn Level 4s on four of their elements. They opened with their strongest element, a Level 4 line that earned the most points -- 5.49. Their block and circle each earned Level 4s and 5.20 points from the judges, and their closing block was awarded a Level 4.

"Our goals were just to skate strong and do our best," said Wiesmeier.

Making their first-ever appearance at the U.S. Championships, Rhythm and Blades landed on the podium in fourth place with a 55.30-point competition mark.