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Popular Evora and Ladwig have golden chance

Affable pairs team enters U.S. Championships with high hopes

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig have won silver twice but never been U.S. champions before.
Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig have won silver twice but never been U.S. champions before. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/18/2012) - Mark Twain once wrote, "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes."

The same might be said about U.S. pairs: for various reasons, the past three U.S. pairs champions have dissolved their partnerships within a season of winning the title.

As prominent exceptions to the trend, two-time U.S. silver medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig might be expected to call themselves favorites at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose next week. But entering their 10th U.S. championships, the veteran team focuses first on improvement, and only then on gold.

"I think every year we have a great opportunity, and we have to just go out there and focus on our performance of the programs we've been building," Ladwig, 31, said on a media conference call. "Whether we're at the top or we're a step down [the podium] or below, we want to go out and show the elements as best we can execute them on that day."

"I don't think any of us in this sport are not aiming to be a national champion," Evora, 27, said. "But I think our primary focus is having a good performance, because at the end of the day ... judges can do the marks but the only thing we can control is our performance."

The popular skaters are universally hailed as old-fashioned exemplars of dedication and good sportsmanship. But according to their coach, Jim Peterson, their even-handed take on their chances for the U.S. title should not be construed as lack of fire.

"Mark and Amanda don't outwardly show their competitive juices, but they are both very passionate about their skating, and they believe in their skating," said Peterson, who trains the team in Ellenton, Fla., with Lyndon Johnston and Alison Smith.

"You don't compete as seniors at U.S. nationals 10 times without really wanting to win. They're fiercely competitive, Amanda in particular, but they know the state of mind they need to be in, and it's not being preoccupied with winning the championship."

After two fourth-place finishes on the Grand Prix this fall, the second at Trophée Eric Bompard in late November, Evora and Ladwig have taken direct aim at their relative weakness, some inconsistency in side-by-side triple toe loops.

Peterson invited Christy Krall, coach of Canadian world champion Patrick Chan, to visit Ellenton for several days earlier this month. The Colorado Springs-based Krall's positive energy, along with technical analysis aided by Dartfish, is credited with helping Chan gain a solid quad toe and more consistent triple Axel.

"We took the open mind of 'You know, yes, we sometimes have a weakness in our side-by-side jumps,' and we would like to show that we are doing everything that we can to improve," Evora said. "It's nice to have [Krall] here, be open-minded [about] what she says, and use her advice into nationals."

"[Christy] brought a very clear, scientific approach," Peterson said. "It's not about relearning a jump; you take what the skater does, look at it and make simple adjustments to get where you need to be efficiently and quickly. It gave Mark and Amanda an edge for nationals and, hopefully, beyond."

Other recent visitors include Tina Lundgren, the New York City philanthropist and world figure skating judge, and Judy Blumberg, winner of five U.S. ice dance titles with Michael Seibert.

Blumberg regularly travels to Ellenton to create the pair's footwork sequences and assist with the overall look of the programs.

"Judy has been a godsend," Peterson said. "Amanda and Mark have gotten nothing below Level 3 on their footwork. She also works on stroking skills and helps with music and costumes."

The work is designed to strengthen, but not dramatically change, programs including a short to Gershwin's "[The] Man I Love" and free skate to "Daphnis et Chloé." The skaters and Peterson call it "GOE [Grade of Execution] to the podium."

"I think we have been pushing the quality," Ladwig said. "In terms of our [programs], there have been minor choreographic changes but no dramatic shift element-wise."

"Since our programs were well received from the Grand Prix, we felt we'd keep the order of the elements the same, and would just continually [work] on the quality of everything, including the choreography," Evora said.

"Something that was also praised a little bit at the Grand Prixs was our transitions. We really upped that from last year. It was nice to see that the judges had noticed it and wanted to encourage the transitions we had been doing."

Regardless of whether they win gold in San Jose, Evora and Ladwig will make no decision on their competitive future until after the 2011-12 season. Then, they will sit down with their coaches and discuss whether to continue, as they have done for several seasons now.

Whatever happens, there is significance in the selection of their free skate music to Ravel's pastoral masterpiece.

"They did it in [2007-08], at Oberstdorf [Nebelhorn Trophy], and almost beat the Germans [Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy] in the free skate, but they weren't able to bring that same magic at nationals that season," he said.

"We decided to bring it back and restructure it and have another go, kind of as homage to their career. All three of us have really grown together. I think I've guided and helped them, and I know they've done the same for me."