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Notes from backstage at world championships

Van der Perren skates through pain; Verner seeks redemption

Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett are among the Team USA members competing in Japan.
Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett are among the Team USA members competing in Japan. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/23/2009) - Since his sixth-place finish at worlds last season, it's been one injury after another for Kevin van der Perren. Still, the 26-year-old Belgian champion has been making the best of his time on and off the ice.

"Whatever happened, I knew I had to do Europeans and worlds, because if I didn't, I might never come back," he said.

After undergoing hip surgery in April 2008, Van der Perren wed British champion Jenna McCorkell, honeymooning at Disneyland. Upon returning to training in July, he aggravated his injury "because I starting jumping again too fast." In August, he injured his wrist, forcing a withdrawal from Nebelhorn Trophy. In his rush to catch up on his training, he tore a muscle in his back, causing him to miss both Finlandia Cup and Skate America.

Van der Perren returned to action at Cup of Russia, placing fifth, but it's still been an uphill climb.

"I did a competition in Germany, and did my quad again, but then I was sick for two weeks with the flu," he said.

"At Europeans, I fell [in practice] the day before the short. I went to the hospital, and they advised me not to skate, but I did."

Fifth after the short, the Belgian surprised himself by winning the bronze medal, his second at Europeans.

"I didn't even skate a hard [free] program," he said. "I did one [triple] Axel, and my triple-triple-triple [combination] later in the program. I took out my quad and my second Axel. I thought, if I stay fifth, I'll be happy. When it turned out I was third, I said, 'How is this possible?'"

Van der Perren's goal this week is also relatively modest.

"I want to be top nine," he said. "I don't want to see two digits."

After the competition, Van der Perren -- a self-described "Disney nut" -- will spend a few days revisiting Disneyland with McCorkell. Then it's back to work, preparing this year's edition of Ice Fantillusion, the show he produces near his home in the Flanders region of Belgium.

"There are a lot of numbers that have to be made," he said. "I used to skate in something like 20 numbers, but I'm not in all of them any more. I just can't do that."

While van der Perren loves the performing aspects of Ice Fantillusion, the business side of the production leaves him cold.

"The organization is hard," he said. "There are a lot of fights, and I want to be friends with everyone. I don't think I was made for the business world."

American idols

For the second time this season, U.S. pair silver medalists Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett shared some practice sessions with their idols, world pair champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.

"Fortunately, we were already on the ice with them at Nebelhorn Trophy, so this just added to the atmosphere," Barrett said. "We weren't nervous."

"We're worked really hard all season," Denney, just 15, added. "We're not really feeling our nerves; it's more like excitement."

Coach Jim Peterson, who trains the couple with Lyndon Johnston in Ellenton, Florida, is sticking with his game plan.

"We're doing strong, complete run-throughs every practice. That's what got us to this point," he said.

"Technically, there have really been few changes. We did add a second double Axel [to the free program]. "We're really pushing the on-ice presentation, to [improve] the program components score."

Big improvements

Few skaters have more to prove in Los Angeles than 2008 European champion Tomas Verner.

"This year is important for me," Verner said. "Last year I really screwed up. I don't want to do that again."

At the 2008 worlds in Gothenburg, Sweden, Verner placed fourth in the short and looked to be a strong contender for a medal. But the 22-year-old Czech popped nearly every jump in his free skate to place 15th place overall.

History repeated itself a bit at Europeans in January, when another poor free skate cost him a shot at defending his title. He ended up sixth.

"I used the six weeks between Europeans and worlds to do my best preparation," Verner said. "I had to change my boots, so I had pain at first but now I'm comfortable.

"I was looking for the reasons I did such a bad free skate, and I realized, I wasn't doing enough run-throughs, so I changed that. That's really the biggest change I've made. Not all of my run-throughs are clean, but I'm not singling jumps, which was my problem. I feel much better now, more sure and confident."

Like several of his counterparts in the U.S. and Canada, Verner turned to choreographer Lori Nichol for guidance, spending a week with her in Toronto.

"She asked me, 'How could these singles happen when you can do triples from any kind of entrance you want? Why do you do a single Lutz when you can do a triple so easily?' The made me think, come on, don't worry about it -- just do it."

Verner, who won two Grand Prix medals last fall and placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final, is happy to be performing on the sport's biggest stage.

"I do this to entertain," he said. "There must be a connection with me and the public. Today at practice, when I laughed or smiled during my circle steps, the [spectators] would laugh too, and that's so beautiful."