McLaughlin, Brubaker adapt to new training methods

U.S. champs hope Nicks' golden years bring them golden moments

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(07/13/2009) - At U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp last month, a speaker asked skaters and their coaches, "What's your first big Olympic memory?"

Frank Carroll remembered how his coach, Maribel Owen, left him to train on his own while she accompanied students to the 1956 Games. Tom Zakrajsek recalled the inspiration of Dorothy Hamill's 1976 gold-medal winning free skate.

Then John Nicks spoke up.

"For me, it was Sonja Henie's first gold medal in 1928," the dry Brit remarked, prompting waves of laughter and a few groans.

Nicks was exaggerating a bit -- he wasn't born until the following year -- but, at age 80, he's the senior member of the coaching ranks. Nicks leads a group of veteran pros -- including Carroll and Don Laws, coach of Canada's world silver medalist Patrick Chan -- who hope to guide their pupils toward the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In Nicks' case, he was thrust back into the spotlight in May when two-time U.S. pair champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker announced they were leaving Colorado Springs, Colo., and coach Dalilah Sappenfield to work with him in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

"They've completed the first real month [training here]," he said last week. "The first week or two were a little rough. I'm sure my coaching is very different for them. They had a wonderful coach [Sappenfield] before, and it takes time getting used to change. The last few weeks have been much, much better."

Teamed by Sappenfield in early 2006, McLaughlin and Brubaker gained fast success, including the 2007 world junior title. In their 2007-08 senior debut season, they qualified for the ISU Grand Prix Final and won the U.S. national title on their first try, although McLaughlin was too young to compete at worlds. But they had a difficult 2008-09 season, scrambling to repeat as U.S. champions after placing second in the short program and finishing a disappointing 11th at their senior worlds debut in Los Angeles in March.

"The move was uncomfortable at first, but I think it will be good in the long run," said McLaughlin, who will turn 17 in September. "Mr. Nicks is very wise. He has a lot of knowledge, a lot to share."

McLaughlin is staying with the family of another skater, Bianca Butler. Brubaker, who is renting a room from a friend of a friend, echoed his partner's words.

"I think sometimes, even if you don't want to make a change, especially a pretty big change, it turns out to be good," the 23-year-old said. "Mr. Nicks is getting to know us, taking us back down to basics. Of course, I miss Colorado Springs. I miss Dalilah; I miss her son, Larry [Ibarra], who is working with her full-time now coaching. I miss living with my brother [Collin], but this is how the chips fell."

In other professions, age and experience aren't always valued by employers. In skating, they are Nicks' biggest selling points.

"The main reason they're training with me, I think, is because this is an Olympic year," he said. "If Keauna and Rockne make the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, which I hope and believe they will, it will be the 12th Olympics I attend as a coach. You could say I've had some experience."

Nicks has been on the world stage since shortly after World War II. He and his late sister Jennifer placed sixth in pairs at the 1947 European Championships. They went on to win three world medals before capturing the 1953 world title.

His past students include three all-time great U.S. pair teams: JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, U.S champions from 1970-72; Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, five-time U.S. champions and winners of the world title in 1979; and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who won three U.S. titles and three world medals. He has also coached countless singles skaters, most recently 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen.

Babilonia, who has mentored McLaughlin and Brubaker, said the skaters couldn't ask for a better coach.

"If I know Mr. Nicks, he is going to sprinkle a little of Tai and Randy into Rockne and Keauna," she said. "I'll bet he brings back a few of the elements we were known for, like the [pair] Ina Bauer. Not that they should [emulate] what we did -- the sport and the rules are different now -- but I guarantee there will be better unison and those side-by-side spins will be right on."

During Nicks' on-again, off-again professional relationship with Cohen, the coach often expressed his delight in a freer schedule that gave him plenty of time for his favorite hobby, fishing. But as it turns out, reports of his semi-retirement were greatly exaggerated.

"Since Sasha [Cohen] retired [in 2006], I've worked mostly assisting other coaches, helping with their skaters. I haven't been a primary coach, but that work has kept me out of trouble," he explained.

"It's nice to get back down to it. I've certainly missed it. I do enjoy being at competitions; it's those 6 a.m. practices in a stone-cold rink I could live without."

Nicks is especially looking forward to the Olympics, to be held in Vancouver next February.

"It's a nice spot, just up the road, no language problem," he said.

There, he might just run into a former student.

"I've talked with Sasha regularly. She consults with me; after all, I've known her for so many years. Of course, [her comeback] is a big challenge, and, historically, the odds are against it. But Sasha is special, and I wouldn't be surprised if she makes it a success."

Consistency is key

In Colorado Springs' World Arena, McLaughlin and Brubaker shared the ice with Sappenfield's other teams, including Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, who placed seventh at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and many other senior, junior and novice couples.

In Aliso Viejo, the pairs' scene is a bit less full, although two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin recently began training under Nicks' former protégées Meno and Sand.

"Rena and John are here about three days a week," Brubaker said. "It's great, because we're used to that kind of competitive environment. Also, Joe Jacobsen is training here with a new partner, Amanda Dobbs, so it's nice to have that atmosphere."

Brubaker has been working himself back into shape after undergoing surgery on April 3 to repair two sports hernias, tears in the muscles of the lower abdomen.

"The surgery went really well; the only thing I [still] really feel it in is the twist. The throws are good," he said. "I started [training] again, I think, maybe the last week in May. Since then, we've been working on a lot of basics, setting things up."

Last week, with Nicks away on a fishing trip in Baja, his students worked on a new free program with Sarah Kawahara, set to music selections from the 2008 Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

"Sarah and I go back a long way. Both of us worked with Ice Capades many years ago -- she as a principal skater and I as the coach of the show," Nicks said. "We've always had a good relationship, and I know all the other opinions Keauna and Rockne heard about her were very positive."

Last season, challenging choreography from Lea Ann Miller forced the skaters out of their comfort zone, something Brubaker said was welcome and necessary.

"We kind of pushed the envelope, which was good for us. We figured out what we were able to do and what wasn't quite within our grasp yet," he said.

"We have to make sure we have hard programs, but not too hard. This season we have to [gain] the ability to have cleaner skates. It's the little things, the placement of the elements -- for example, [not doing] triple jumps right after a carry lift. But I really loved our programs last season, especially the long. We learned a lot from them."

According to Nicks, greater consistency, in practice as well as in competition, will be the key to success.

"There are usually five, maybe six risk items [in a pairs' long program]: side-by-side triple jumps, two throw triples, side-by-side spins with good unison, and so on," Nicks said.

"I'm trying to eliminate some of the risk. I think, so far, we're doing a good job working toward that. I hope that, when their competitive season starts, they're even more consistent on a daily basis."

Babilonia not-so-fondly remembered her old coach's favored method to drill consistency: "We'd do double run-throughs of our long program, which back then was five minutes, and then we'd take off our skates, put on sneakers and run around the parking lot."

Asked if he planned the same technique with his new students, Nicks sighed.

"I was a nightmare," he said. "No, I don't do that anymore. A coach has to change his ways and keep up, or he won't be in demand. Now I think one run-through, if it's strong and good, is enough."