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McLaughlin, Brubaker win pairs short

Generations collide in the senior pairs event

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2008) - When Keauna McLaughlin was five years old, she used to visit John Baldwin's home in Venice, Calif.

"I played cards with her," Baldwin said. "I've known her more than half her life. Her mom, Lei'Ina, was a coach in Burbank."

Figure skating is a small world, but rarely do generations collide like they are here in Saint Paul, Minn. at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

In the normal course of events, Baldwin might be coaching McLaughlin by now. But the 34-year-old skater, who is competing at his 20th consecutive U.S. Championship, instead squared off against the 15-year-old in the pairs short program.

Youth prevailed, but just barely.

McLaughlin and her 21-year-old partner, Rockne Brubaker, edged out two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and Baldwin by 1.30 points.

"I think it was our best short of the season," said McLaughlin, who is too young under ISU rules to compete at the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

"We felt really relaxed and focused on the presentation and expression. I think that really helped us with the elements, too."

The Colorado Springs-based couple delivered an elegant, technically superior performance, set to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," that resonated with emotion. They hit a soaring triple twist and solid side-by-side triple Salchows.

Although McLaughlin's hand skimmed the ice during the landing of their throw triple Salchow, the 2007 world junior champions still racked up 66.54 points, their best-ever short program total.

"We didn't feel any pressure; we just felt motivated," McLaughlin said.

The pairs event was a big question mark, since none of the top three U.S. teams from last season competed on the recent Grand Prix circuit this past fall.

But Brubaker said he didn't give those other pairs much thought.

"The U.S. has some good pairs, but our biggest competition is from other countries," he said. "We know the best teams are in Canada, Germany and China, so it wasn't in our mind.

"Any competition we go to, we're not skating for second place. You have to believe you can be the best, or you've already lost."

Although the couple competed on the Senior Grand Prix circuit with great success, taking home silver medals from the Cup of China and the NHK Trophy, they claim they're not too disappointed about skipping the big show in Gothenburg.

"We want to make a big bang on the senior circuit next season," McLaughlin reasoned. "In a way, [missing worlds] is a blessing in disguise. It gives us another year to grow."

Performing to music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Inoue and Baldwin delivered a clean performance featuring side-by-side double Axels, a throw triple loop and the finest spins of the evening. They earned 65.24 points and are solidly in second place.

Their sterling effort was a comeback of sorts; the couple spent much of the summer and fall touring in Spain, Japan, Italy and France.

It was the 31 year-old Inoue, who was born in Japan but became a U.S. citizen in 2005, who insisted on the change of scenery.

"I told Johnny after the '07 worlds I wanted a break," she said. "I was getting exhausted. Doing the shows refreshed my mind."

"We wanted to try another side of the sport," Baldwin added. "We got a lot of experience and will probably tour again, but shows never give you the same feeling of fulfillment as competition."

Inoue and Baldwin, who previously trained under Peter Oppegard, teamed with L.A.-area choreographer and coach Phillip Mills in the fall. At first, he was enlisted to create a show program, but as the U.S. championships grew closer, the skaters decided to compete. They returned from their tours on January 9th with just two weeks to prepare.

"I was literally afraid to come here," Baldwin said. "It was so late in the game. But it's not like we were out of shape; we had been doing two shows a day."

Baldwin did admit that the long program, at four-and-a-half minutes, would be a greater challenge.

"We got through the short fine, but it's the same length as our show program," he said. "The free skate on Saturday will be the real test, but that's why we're here, to test ourselves."

Defending U.S. champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski executed fine pair elements in their short to music from the soundtrack of the spaghetti western "L'Arena," but both skaters faltered on their double Axels. They sit third with 58.95 points, 7.59 off the leaders.

It was their first competitive program of the season. Last summer, Castile began suffering from a variety of ailments affecting her left side, including sciatica. After extensive physical therapy, she and Okolski began training again in the fall.

"We're not completely thrilled with the program, but I thought it was good for the first time out," the 21-year-old Castile said. "Obviously, we made a big mistake. I'm happy but not thrilled."

"I just wasn't aggressive enough on the Axel," the 23-year-old Okolski added. "I felt confident after we landed the throw, and the Axel is usually one of my strongest elements. I rarely miss it."

Performing a technically challenging program to "Stray Cat Strut," Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig earned 57.10 points for fourth place.