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Castile, Okolski come out on top at Indy

2007 U.S. champions stake claim for Skate America slot

Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski performed their "Claire de Lune" program.
Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski performed their "Claire de Lune" program. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/03/2009) - Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski marked themselves as contenders this Olympic season, surging into the U.S. pair mix with a commanding win in the Indy Challenge free skate.

With past injury troubles seemingly behind them, the Michigan duo topped a strong field by more than four points.

"We're pretty pleased," Okolski said. "Our goal was to get in and out with solid skates and try to make all of our steadier elements -- the death spirals, combination spin and [side-by-side] spins -- really strong."

The 24-year-old skater said being healthy makes all the difference.

"It's been really good," he said. "We're practicing very well, very consistent. We know how to train hard. It's training hard without an injury that has been a challenge the last few seasons. We're taking forward steps, not backward steps."

The 2007 U.S. champions, who placed fifth at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, are known for strong pair elements and fine choreography, but they often have trouble with side-by-side jumps.

In their free program at Indy, choreographed by Marina Zoueva last season to Debussy's "Clair de Lune," they received credit for rotating their opening triple Salchows, although Castile turned out of the landing.

"We got around on the Salchows, but, if you make any mistake, you're easily down one or two points," Okolski said. "Still, we're happy with them. In the short program, they were [under-rotated], and we only got .5."

Other moves -- including a soaring triple twist, three Level 4 lifts and a throw triple flip after the halfway mark -- were exceptional. Although the skaters faltered slightly on a single Axel-double toe sequence, they finished with a strong combination spin and ended with 116.86 points overall.

Castile and Okolski, who train under Johnny Johns in Canton, Mich., appear to have achieved their main goal of the summer: to impress U.S. Figure Skating officials enough grab an international assignment, perhaps a slot at Skate America in Lake Placid this fall.

"This is what we were hoping for at Indy," Okolski said. "We didn't have our best skates at Skate Detroit, and we wanted to show we were capable of really competing at Skate America and making a good showing."

"It felt good. We're happy with the way we skated," added Castile, 23. "We would like two assignments, maybe a [B-level international], but we'll be happy with anything we get."

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, who placed second in the short program, duplicated that result with another strong effort in their free to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, choreographed by their coach, Jim Peterson.

Like Castile and Okolski, the Floridians are known for top-notch pair elements, especially lifts, but sometimes they falter on triple jumps. Here, they opened with an impressive Level 2 triple twist and landed triple toe loops before Ladwig missed the second jump in the intended combination.

"There are still goals to attain in the program," Ladwig said. "I singled the double toe, but we went for it and were rewarded."

The second half of the routine, which included four Level 4 elements and a huge throw triple loop, was especially strong, and they ended with 112.23 points.

"I love the layout of the program," Ladwig said. "We sat down with our coach and asked where our strengths are, where are the elements that take more effort and where we can place everything. For example, we don't step back in our spiral sequence, but it helps us relax midway so we can charge through the second half."

"I'm happy I got credit for the [triple toe and double Axel]," Evora said. "That was certainly a big goal here."

The team has been assigned to the Cup of China this fall and hopes for a second international event.

Evora and Ladwig's training partners, reigning U.S. silver medalists Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who placed an impressive ninth at their world championship debut in March, were third in the free with 105.77 points. They also placed third in the short.

Skating to Scheherazade, the pair opened with a triple twist but lost ground when Barrett uncharacteristically doubled an intended triple toe, dropping the value of the element to just 0.77 points. They recovered with a tremendous throw triple Lutz and double Axel-double toe combination, but their program components score, 48.32, was six points lower than Evora and Ladwig's.

"We're not concerned about the [triple toe]; everybody knows we have good jumps," Barrett said. "This is our first time out with the program this year, and we're glad to get it out there and find out what we need to work on. It's nice to have fresh eyes take a look and give us opinions. There were a few smaller things that were a little sloppy."

"The program is still new," Denney added. "We only finished it two weeks ago. Now we have a whole bunch of time to work until our first big competition [NHK Trophy]."

The pair has worked with five-time U.S. ice dance champion Judy Blumberg, who recently visited their rink to help perfect footwork and polish their overall skating.

"She's coming back later in August," Barrett said. "She's looking at the footwork, maybe suggesting some minor adjustments, and she's also doing stroking classes at the rink."

"It's a great honor to work with her and get her input," Denney added.

Strong lifts helped propel Canadians Paige Lawrence and Rudolph "Rudi" Swiegers to fourth place with 101.68 points.

"There's a lot we can do to improve, but it's a decent start," Swiegers said.

Chloe Katz and Joseph Lynch, who placed sixth at the 2009 U.S. Championships, were fifth at Indy, with their program to music from Henry V earning 95.33 points. The New Yorkers recently moved to Michigan to train under Johns. The new Canadian pairing of Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch were sixth with 93.87.

Skating to music from the soundtrack of Pearl Harbor, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin were disappointed to falter on their two throw triples and pair combination spin, but they were happy with the overall response to their program.

"We want to work on strengthening our on-ice relationship and really tell a story with this program," Coughlin said. "We've had it a very short time."

The pair, who placed seventh at the 2009 U.S. Championships, will next compete at Broadmoor Skating Club's Pike's Peak Classic in Colorado Springs, Colo. They hope for an international B-level assignment.