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McLaughlin, Brubaker tackle new challenges

Pair hopes new choreography can vault them to top of world

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker smile outside the theatre after seeing <i>In the Heights</i>.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker smile outside the theatre after seeing In the Heights. (Lynn Rutherford )

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(04/24/2008) - Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker have all the elements they need to compete with the world's best: a soaring triple twist, solid triple throws, difficult lifts and side-by-side triple jumps.

With two senior Grand Prix medals and the 2007 world junior title to their credit, the U.S. champions have already proven themselves technically.

What they haven't done yet is challenge top teams like Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany on an artistic level.

"Our tricks are definitely up there," Brubaker, who brims with confidence and strength, said.

"We beat the Germans at NHK Trophy last fall technically. The biggest gap between us and the other teams is our Program Components Score, our skating skills and choreography."

To reach the final rung will take something extra, that special connection with each other and the crowd only great pairs can muster. To help get it, the skaters traveled from their home training base in Colorado Springs to spend a week with Lea Ann Miller in Connecticut. It was their first experience working with a choreographer.

"Lea Ann is kind of the missing link; she's the person who can help set us in the right direction," Brubaker, who turns 22 on June 21, said.

"She can pull out skaters' abilities and perfect the style they already have. When you see her programs, you don't say, 'Oh, Lea Ann did that,' because although it's her choreography, the skaters are out there being themselves."

When the couple's coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, called Miller to arrange her students' trip, the choreographer made one stipulation: her pupils had to arrive with open minds.

"They had to be ready for anything," Miller said. "If I said, 'Go out and stand on your head on the ice,' they had to be willing to try it. And they were, beyond my expectations.

"They're a beautifully-matched team; I've worked with a lot of pairs that bicker, especially when they're getting new choreography. But these two are so supportive of each other; I feel they will have a very long future."

Although Miller spends much of her time with professional endeavors these days, including the Disson Skating shows, she has an extensive background in competitive skating. She and partner William Fauver placed a career-high seventh at the 1983 worlds and 10th at the 1984 Olympics before enjoying a long pro career with Stars on Ice. Known for their superb line and elegance, they were the first team to do a back spiral into a back pair camel spin.

But what really impressed McLaughlin and Brubaker was that Miller created several of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao's most memorable routines, including their transcendent free skate to Turandot, which the Chinese pair used to win two of their three world titles.

"I think [her programs] for Shen and Zhao were amazing," the 15-year-old McLaughlin said. "She really helps pair skaters connect with each other and bring the audience in."

"I don't know how she does it; she has a sixth sense," Brubaker added. "It's amazing how well her ideas flow. Because she was a pair skater herself, her transitions are great. She knows what will work and what won't."

Not that the moves always came easily.

"When we first got together, Lea Ann said, 'If you're able to do it the first time after I give it to you, it's not hard enough,'" McLaughlin laughed.

Miller was hard at work coming up with ideas for Kristi Yamaguchi's annual Disson Skating special when Sappenfield approached her, but she made time for the young pair.

"I haven't done a lot of eligible choreography recently; I'm not a big fan of the new rules, although I respect that they're in place to try to improve the quality of the skating," she said of the International Judging System and its strict code of points.

"I look at my job as creating transitions, picking good music and watching the skaters' lines. The time between a lift and a throw is maybe 20 seconds, and that's where I come in."

Several weeks ago, Miller traveled to Colorado Springs to choreograph the couple's short program to a modern version of "Malaguena." During their time in Connecticut, she created their long to selections from West Side Story, music that has been used by dance and pair teams including France's Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay; Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto; and Miller and Fauver themselves, back in the early 1980's.

"We have [our programs] all laid out, with the transitions, and we're going to come back to Lea Ann and add the second layer to them later on," Brubaker said.

"We're doing basically the same elements as last year, plus we're adding another set of side-by-side triples -- the toes -- to the Salchows we [already] have. It's going to be hard, but after we train the program all summer, people are really going to see a difference."

Although the couple is playing the parts of the star-crossed young lovers Maria and Tony, they said they were taking a unique approach.

"Our program is a lot of fun; we're skating to 'Maria,' 'Tonight,' and the 'Gym Mambo,'" McLaughlin said.

"We're trying to use pieces people have rarely used before to tell a different side of the story, not the rumble and the dying. Most people have used 'Somewhere' and maybe 'America.' It's so energetic and youthful; we're telling the story of young love."

With all of the technical elements, plus a second side-by-side triple, the team is aware that skating clean will be tough.

"If you look at the Germans, I don't think they had a clean skate all season," Brubaker said. "It's not necessarily about skating clean; it's about the entire package. [Savchenko and Szolkowy] can make mistakes, but you don't remember the errors because there is so much more to the program."

The two took some time away from the rink to see their first Broadway show, In the Heights, a musical about three days in the life of Latino residents of Washington Heights.

"Since we're doing West Side Story, we wanted to see a musical with dancing, just to be inspired," McLaughlin said. "I saw Wicked in Los Angeles, and I just loved it."

Although the team had to sit out worlds this season due to McLaughlin's tender age, with her 16th birthday coming up on September 25, that is no longer a concern.

"We would definitely have loved to compete at worlds, but [missing out] gave us another year to grow," McLaughlin reasoned. "When we go next year, we'll make a big bang."

As for their fall Grand Prix assignments, the couple hopes to compete at Skate America and the Cup of China -- and they're setting lofty goals.

"We made the Grand Prix Final last fall; this year, we're hoping to medal there," Brubaker said. "We're trying to position ourselves for the 2010 Olympics. They are coming up, and we don't want to go just to go. We want to get a medal. It's definitely there for us to get; we just have to work hard for it.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work and time, but Lea Ann has given us the choreography and the programs to close that gap."