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Sarah and Drew dish at U.S. Champs

All the dirt from Sarah Brannen and Drew Meekins

Sarah Brannen and Drew Meekins.
Sarah Brannen and Drew Meekins. (Paul Harvath)

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(01/23/2008) - Sarah Brannen and Drew Meekins dig up all the dish from the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and serve it up right here on icenetwork.com!

Welcome to St. Paul

We were very lucky to be greeted at our gate in the airport by the glamorous writer and photographer Kathleen Bangs. Kathleen is the director of public relations for the Minneapolis - Saint Paul Airport, and she whisked us through in style. She gave us a speedy rundown of the airport's present and future amenities, which include a new mall, a clinic and a dog kennel.

"We're trying to make it so you can be born here, live here and die here," joked Bangs.

She told us she's trying to get the airport to install a skating rink, in case someone needs some last minute practice. We're not sure how, but she caused our bags to be the first off the plane, and we arrived at the Crowne Plaza Hotel a half hour after the plane touched down!

By the way, "we" are writer, illustrator and photographer Sarah Brannen, and the 2006 world junior pair champion Drew Meekins. Drew finds himself partnerless at the moment, so he's wearing a media credential for this event and sharing a skater's perspective.

Off the Ice

Noticeably absent from Saint Paul this week are three of last year's silver medalists: Emily Hughes and ice dancers Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov. We called Denis on Monday to get an update on the injury he and Melissa suffered during the warm-up at Skate Canada.

"Something was twisted and pulling my knee," he said. "I don't know the exact medical term, but it was tendonitis caused by muscle weakness, I guess. I have a brace, and I'm off the ice for now. Melissa is doing much better. We're looking forward to next year, and just waiting to fully recover."

He said they would be watching the competition on television. "We'll be cheering for Johnny [Weir], because I choreographed his long program. So I'm hoping to see everything he can do, put the quad in, all that."

We also spoke to Emily , and she said she's getting a lot of physical therapy for her injured hip. She's sorry not to be here, but she's busy with exams, which she would have had to take in Saint Paul if she had been competing (a Harvard University official would have had to come and proctor them). She had an exam Wednesday morning, in fact -- Economics, her toughest subject.

"It was a tough decision to make, because Nationals is my favorite competition. I'll be watching from home, and I'm really looking forward to watching the men because I think it will be a great competition."

Emily, Melissa and Denis are three of the nicest people around, and they will certainly be missed off the ice as well as on.

A Totally Different Perspective

If you've never been back behind the kiss-and-cry during a competition, it gives you a whole new perspective on the experience for the skaters. It's a cavernous, dark space with a wet floor from the Zamboni. Skaters pace intensely, waiting their turn. The entrance to the ice is rather narrow, and filled with people running around. It's a little bit chaotic. Some people aren't even paying attention to what's happening on the ice. The TV lights are blindingly bright. For a skater, even though you've seen the ice on a TV screen, or from the stands, when you walk through the kiss-and-cry and see it right in front of you, you get an adrenalin rush, and your stomach drops to the floor. Walking down the rubber mat leading to the ice is a little bit like walking down a runway and a little bit like walking the plank.

There's a little waiting area of couches and chairs grouped around a TV monitor. Sometimes skaters from the next event hang out there with their coaches, still relaxed before their warm-up starts.

There's not much else back there except the big NBC TV trucks. When you see them, you know that it's for real now. This is prime-time!

Relativity

Little-known fact: Marissa Castelli, who won the bronze medal in novice pairs with her partner Simon Shnapir, may not only attribute her skating success to fantastic triple throws. It might also have something to do with her genes, since Marissa's mother is related to Olympic champion Brian Boitano. "My mother is his cousin. I met him for the first time last year at Nationals. My uncle Robert knew him, and I always wanted to meet him."

We watched the junior ladies free skate with Marissa and a posse of male pairs skaters: Chris Knierim, Simon Shnapir, Michael Chau, Andrew Speroff, Andy Seitz, Drew, Daniyel Cohen. Nearly all of them are past or present novice pair medalists or champions.

Newly-crowned novice men's champion Daniel O'Shea is the second cousin of 2001 novice men's champion Matt Lind. "I'm pumped that he kept it in the family! I watched on icenetwork and I was really excited for him. He works really hard and I thought he did really well," said Matt.

Alexe Gilles was a rockstar on Tuesday night, nailing two triple Lutzes on her way to winning the junior ladies title. One of the best things about her performance was watching her mother Bonnie in the stands, jumping up and down in excitement and happiness.

We ran into Kimmie Meissner and her mother Judy waiting to go to lunch. They arrived last night, and Kimmie said she was looking forward to spending some time in Saint Paul.

"I've been here a couple of times, but I've never been to the Mall of America, so this time I"m going to go!"

She and her coach walked back to the hotel through the famous Skyway system.

"We were afraid we were going to get lost. There were no signs and we weren't sure we were going the right way."

We agreed that we all felt like hamsters going through a giant maze.