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U.S. champs' new free skate reigns at Indy

McLaughlin, Brubaker reach new heights with West Side Story

Rockne Brubaker carries Keauna McLaughlin during part of their super free skate.
Rockne Brubaker carries Keauna McLaughlin during part of their super free skate. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/11/2008) - It was goose-bump time at the 2008 Indy Pairs Challenge on Sunday afternoon when Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker debuted their new free skate to music from West Side Story.

The program wasn't perfect -- Brubaker fell on the back end of a triple Salchow-double toe loop combination and doubled an intended triple toe -- but Lea Ann Miller's exciting choreography added the "wow factor" that the U.S. champions will need in order to compete against the world's best.

At the end of the routine, right after a stunning Level 4 Axel lasso lift, McLaughlin raised her arms in triumph.

"I didn't even know I had that in me," the 15-year-old skater said.

"To do all of my jumps and throws, I was so ecstatic. The biggest thing I focused on was being in character; I didn't even worry about the elements. Maybe that's why they came so easily to me. I was so in the moment and so focused on presenting."

The energetic opening, set to the musical's famous overture, featured the duo's big triple twist. Brubaker took his tumble on the next element, the triple-double combination, but recovered quickly with a strong lift.

"This is the first time ever I'm really excited about the long," the 22-year-old Brubaker said. "I love the characters we get to play. As far as jumps go, I don't fall on double toes, so I have no answer. I was glad, even after my mistakes, I was able to stay in character and finish the program strong."

McLaughlin hit two strong triple throws, a Salchow and loop. Two of the couple's elements -- the pair spin and straight-line steps -- rated only Level 1, but with two months until their next event, Skate America, there is plenty of time for tinkering. They earned 112.70 points, well ahead of the field.

"We will work with Lea Ann again in a few weeks to make sure the program is set and comfortable, and everything is where it needs to be," Brubaker said.

"We feel it's within our grasp to have a world medal this year. With how hard we train and with the abilities we have, we don't see why that's not a realistic goal."

"And an Olympic medal in 2010," McLaughlin added.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig continued their string of strong summer performances with a solid outing of their free to the "Pas de Deux" from The Nutcracker. They captured second place with 100.51 points.

The pair opened with a solid triple twist and then lost ground when Ladwig fell on a triple Salchow. They recovered with a lovely throw triple Lutz, strong side-by-side spins with a jump entrance and a well-executed throw triple loop. Although they singled planned double Axels, four of their five remaining elements gained Level 4s from the technical panel.

"The ["Pas de Deux"] is an old war horse, but it is beautiful music that shows the relationship between a man and a woman," Jim Peterson, the team's primary coach and choreographer, said.

"I think those are the best throws Amanda has ever done; the throw Lutz is becoming very consistent."

Another of Peterson's pairs, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, were a surprisingly strong third with 97.28 points.

Two months ago, the skaters re-formed a partnership ended two years ago when Denney and her family moved to Colorado. Here, they had one of the cleaner programs of the event, including a solid triple twist, strong throw triple Lutz, throw triple loop and side-by-side double Axels.

"Our timing is very similar, so it feels natural for me to jump and spin in sync with Jeremy," Denney said.

"She's just excellent on the throws," Barrett added.

Skating to music from the motion picture soundtrack Bram Stoker's Dracula, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin were fourth with 93.93 points. Their lifts were outstanding, but Yankowskas did not hold the landings of their triple throws and also fell on a triple Salchow.

"It's only the second time out with this program," Coughlin said. "It's the same music as last season, but we had Zuzanna Szwed retool a lot of her [original] choreography. We incorporated more transitions and added triple Salchows, but there is still more reordering of tricks that needs to be done."

Mitch Moyer, U.S. Figure Skating's senior director of athlete high performance, called this year's Indy Challenge a big success.

"It's exciting to have such a strong U.S. pairs event," he said. "For the most part, all the name teams we looked for showed up. Over the last two years at [U.S. Skating's] pairs camp, we've talked about how we needed more intensity, and how pairs could up the ante with side-by-side triples and other elements. The performances here bode well."

Moyer added that a selection committee would likely meet in the next week or so to determine which teams would be assigned to upcoming senior "B" international events, including the Nebelhorn Trophy and the Coupe Internationale de Nice.