Ice Network

Denney, Frazier shake off rust, impress in Detroit

Chicago-based pair puts out strong free at first competition in 16 months
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Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (right) with husband-and-wife coaching team Rockne Brubaker and Stefania Berton. -Klaus-Reinhold Kany

Midway through the pairs free skate at 2016 Skate Detroit on Saturday -- after he and Haven Denney hit a triple twist, side-by-side triple salchows and a throw triple loop -- Brandon Frazier's face lit up.

"I thought, 'Wow, we're in it again,'" he said.

In it again after months spent in limbo not knowing when the torn ligaments in Denney's right knee would heal enough to sustain all-out training. Endless weeks of Denney diligently rehabbing, keeping up her spirits despite training in a hard brace, the whole time Frazier wishing he could just fast forward to this evening at the Detroit Skating Club.

"Haven handled herself like a warrior," Frazier said of Denney, who sustained the injury during an off-ice warmup last April. "When I went out there with her tonight, it made me strive to be stronger, to be everything I sometimes think I'm not. It was an incredible feeling."

The 2015 U.S. silver medalists -- whose last major competition was the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships, where they finished in 12th place -- earned 120.26 points for a program to music from Somewhere in Time that also featured a throw triple salchow and three challenging lifts in its second half. Denney and Frazier won the senior pairs free skate, defeating Jessica Calalang and Zack Sidhu by nearly 16 points.

The score, strong for July, was the last thing on Denney's mind.

"After everything we've gone through together, it was very emotional for us," she said. "This competition in particular had more meaning than just, 'Let's do this.' We went into it thinking that no matter how it goes, it's just a big victory to be on competition ice again."

Two-time U.S. pairs champion Rockne Brubaker and his wife, three-time Italian pairs champion Stefania Berton, coach the skaters at Fox Valley Ice Center in Geneva, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

"A short program is one thing -- they did one at Skate Milwaukee (in early July) -- but coming out and preparing for the long program was a big step for them," Brubaker said. "It's getting that monkey off of your back, having the confidence to say, 'It's OK, we can do this.'"

Denney underwent surgery six days after the injury. She underwent physical therapy near their former training site in Coral Springs, Florida. Older sister Caydee, a two-time U.S. pairs champion, supported her every step of the way. Andrew Torgashev, the 2015 U.S. junior champion who broke his ankle last June, was usually by her side.

"From April through October, Andrew and I were little rehab buddies," Denney said.

Last fall, Denney and Frazier traveled to Colorado Springs, where Denney returned to the ice. It was slow and methodical -- just stroking at first -- with her right knee in a hard brace. They didn't start training throws until January or February, and the brace only came off in April. By then, they were in Chicago.

"Rockne and Stefania have great heads on their shoulders," Frazier said. "There were some times when it got tough, just when we progressed and did full run-throughs. They were able to keep it light and keep us going."

"Sometimes I would get frustrated," Denney said. "If I had a bad day, I would go, 'This used to be easy,' but they were so patient with me; they helped me build myself up."

For a few months, while Denney was in Florida rehabbing, Frazier trained in Canton, Michigan, where he worked with Marina Zoueva to improve his basic stroking and skating skills. Zoueva choreographed the pair's Somewhere in Time free, as well as their short program to selections from the musical Don Juan.

"Marina did an incredible job with both programs," Frazier said. "We come to see her from time to time; we work great with her."

Both the skaters and their coaches are confident the free skate will grow as the season goes on. In Detroit, Denney and Frazier intentionally reduced a double axel-double axel sequence to singles. They hope to compete at a Challenger Series event before their lone Grand Prix assignment at Skate Canada.

"There are little hiccups we need to work on, like our axels," Frazier said. "The death spiral was not as powerful as it typically was, and just making our lifts and twists grow to the higher level. Everyone is saying, 'Take your time, be patient -- it will come.'"

Brubaker looks forward to improving the team's triple twist even more, perhaps working on a quadruple.

"He is a very strong guy. She is very strong and light and really holds herself well, so we have work we want to do on that," Brubaker said. "It's really down the road; not this year but seasons to come. We can adjust the technique now for a really good triple so down the road we have the option to start on a really good quad twist."

In addition to drilling the duo on technical elements, Berton focuses on helping the skaters achieve elegant positions in the lifts and transition moves.

"The look, in general, is something I have a special eye for, because what I really think stays with the audiences and judges is the emotional part of the program," she said.

Former British junior ice dance champion Jamie Whyte trains ice dancers at their rink. Denney and Frazier work with Whyte on stroking and steps. Whyte's coaching partner, Alina Ponomaryova, teaches off-ice ballet.

"We pride ourselves on the team aspect," Brubaker said. "It's not just one person who does it; it's a group of coaches and training mates, the whole environment. If you're going to be here, you respect the people you train with, the people you work with. It's healthy, and that's why it's doing so well."

After many years in Florida, Denney and Frazier both say they're loving life in the Windy City. Still, they've yet to feel Chicago's winters, when temperatures regularly dip below zero.

"We're going to get prepared for that," Frazier said. "It will be a lot different from Miami come December."