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McLaughlin, Brubaker count down to Vancouver

U.S. pair champions say "no big changes" for Skate America

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker sign autographs at Rockefeller Center.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker sign autographs at Rockefeller Center. (Getty)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(11/05/2009) - Its Yankees celebration time in New York, but right before the pinstripes rapped up their 27th World Series title in the Bronx Wednesday, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and presenting sponsor Hilton Worldwide kicked off a 100-day countdown to the Vancouver Olympics at Rockefeller Center.

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker signed autographs and snapped photos with a long line of admirers, then took to the Rockefeller Center Ice to show off a few of their best moves. But their training schedule with coach John Nicks demanded a quick trip back to California.

"I'm a big Derek Jeter fan," Brubaker, 23, said. "I got to see him play when the Yankees were in Anaheim. What an athlete; he always plays all out. I would have loved to have stayed for the game, but with Skate America next week we couldn't be gone too long."

Despite a chilling breeze, the day-long festivities attracted crowds of New Yorkers and tourists.

2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes and two-time Olympian JoJo Starbuck led free skates for local public school students. Four-time U.S. ice dance silver medalists Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov brought their ice theatre troupe, who performed a routine to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

"Events like this are a great way to pull in different crowds and get people interested in the sport," Brubaker said.

Skate America, held in Lake Placid on Nov. 12-15, is the second fall Grand Prix event for the two-time U.S. pair champions. They made their season debut at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow last month, winning the bronze medal with two new programs choreographed by Sarah Kawahara: a short to "Unchained Melody" and a free skate to selections from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.

Both skaters were happy with their short but admitted their free could have been better.

"Our free skate in Moscow was a little tough, but it gives us something to build on," Brubaker said. "It's funny. We haven't had the short as long and the free was the program we were more comfortable with. It was kind of one of those things."

"We were surprised and pleased with how well our short went," added McLaughlin. "Even though I fell in the free [on a triple Salchow], I'm proud I didn't give up without a fight. For Skate America it's all about competing well and looking more mature and polished."

The skaters don't plan any major changes to their routines.

"We're going to really try to all-out perform the programs," Brubaker said. "I feel like we've trained well and our stamina is good. We may add more arm movements. We're concentrating on [improving] the program component scores."

Another big goal is gaining higher grades of execution (GOEs) on elements from the judges, even at the occasional sacrifice of difficulty.

"Level 3 [elements] with positive GOEs can be worth more than Level 4 elements with negative GOEs," Brubaker reasoned.

"When it comes down to it it's the whole package. If you do an easier element you can easily make it up on the component marks."

It's been a season of change for McLaughlin and Brubaker, who left Colorado Springs and coach Dalilah Sappenfield after placing 11th at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championship in March.

They joined forces with veteran pairs coach Nicks, who guided the careers of Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who now coach at the same rink as their former mentor.

Asked what the biggest change in their training routine is, Brubaker said, "We're being more efficient and making the most of every practice, which Dalilah was [also] trying to teach us. It was a big learning experience last season, learning what we need to do to compete well." Keauna's mom, Lei Ina, a former competitive and show skater, is no longer part of the coaching team.

"Lei Ina used to work with us a bit [in Colorado Springs] which was good when Keauna was younger," Brubaker said. "Now, Mr. Nicks is the director. He's the guy who makes the executive decisions."

McLaughlin said Nicks cultivates a gruff exterior for public consumption but in reality isn't difficult to work with.

"He's so witty," she said. "Once you get comfortable he's more easy-going that you would think."

Although Keauna, who was born in California, moved back to the state on her own, her mother, grandmother and younger sister recently returned as well, reuniting the family in Laguna Niguel.

"Until now, I didn't understand how hard it's been living on my own, by myself, after three and a half years in Colorado Springs," the skater said. "Everything was so new. I underestimated how hard it would be to be on my own."

Next week, the young team will square off against two-time Olympic bronze medalists Xue Shen, 31, and Hongbo Zhao, 36, who began skating together in 1992 -- the same year McLaughlin was born.

"I was joking with my mom that maybe I would get their autographs," she said. "[Competing against them] will definitely be motivating. I've loved watching them since I was 13, when I saw them live at Four Continents. They're amazing.

"You know, Rockne and I want to [compete in] two Olympics, and in 2014, I will only be 21, so I'm still a baby at this."