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Two U.S. pairs to make senior international debuts

Nebelhorn Trophy will be proving ground for young U.S. pairs

Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth will face their first senior international test.
Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth will face their first senior international test. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/22/2010) - With two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy taking a break from their home-country Nebelhorn Trophy this week, the pairs field has opened up.

Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth, and Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, will test senior international waters for the first time against the likes of Russian bronze medalists Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov and the former Canadian silver medalist Meagan Duhamel and her new partner, Eric Radford.

When the pairs squared off as juniors at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, they faced a test of a different sort: recovering their composure after colliding into each other during the warm-up practice before the short program.

Toth -- who took five stitches to the back of his head -- was quick to joke about it.

"I did feel a little out of it when they gave me the stitches," he said. "The doctor kept asking me a lot of spelling questions, and just generally, I didn't know the answers. My dad had to explain I just couldn't spell."

Both teams survived and thrived. Zhang and Toth won the 2010 U.S. junior title and placed ninth at junior worlds; Donlan and Speroff gained kudos for the impressive pair elements they've shown at this summer, including a huge triple twist.

The teams squared off as seniors at the Liberty Summer Competition in July, with Zhang and Toth placing ahead in both the short and free. Donlan and Speroff turned the tables later this summer at the Cranberry Open.

Since then, said Zhang, there haven't been any big changes her team's program elements.

"We've worked on [improving] the quality of our lifts, but all of the levels are the same," the high school senior said. "We've added a new "flip" down from one of the lifts and we're going to try it in our free skate at Nebelhorn.

"We've been focusing on transitions and choreography. Competing at Liberty and Cranberry, we were able to try out the routines and get feedback."

The skaters, who train under Jeff DiGregorio and Ron Ludington at University of Delaware, took their time developing their programs: a free to Miss Saigon, choreographed by Irina Romanova, and short to Debussy's "Clair de Lune," created by Tim Murphy.

"Both our programs are new this season; last season, we were rushed, to say the least," the 22-year-old Toth, a student at University of Delaware, said.

"We worked on them in baby steps. We wanted to start fresh. We've both studied ballet off the ice; we'd like to bring a bit more of that on to the ice. Elements, choreography, transitions, connections, emotion -- hopefully we'll have it all down by nationals [in January 2011]."

Teamed by their coaches in the spring of 2009, the young pair sometimes felt they were in a race against time preparing their programs last season, when their efforts at Liberty impressed U.S. Figure Skating officials enough for them to be awarded Junior Grand Prix events. Then came the unexpected victory at the U.S. Championships, where they defeated another fine then-junior pair, Britney Simpson and Nathan Miller.

What's especially impressive is Zhang, the 2008 U.S. novice bronze medalist who placed sixth in juniors at the 2010 U.S. Championships, had never skated pairs before. (Toth -- also an accomplished singles competitor -- is more experienced in pairs, having partnered Kylie Gleason and Molly Aaron in the novice and junior ranks.)

"You just knew from the start Felicia had the ability to be a good pair girl," DiGregorio said. "She's certainly talented and she has a fine work ethic. It was just a matter of getting the timing of the elements down. You can't rush things, especially lifts and twists."

"I think it's very beneficial to do both [pairs and singles]," Zhang said. "Doing the different programs every day keeps me balanced. The confidence I develop doing pairs, blends into my singles, and vice versa. I'm not depending on just pairs, or just singles. I want to prove you can do both."

Zhang will have a chance to test that out: she has been assigned the upcoming Junior Grand Prix in Dresden, Germany. Zhang and Toth have also been awarded a coveted slot to compete at 2010 Skate America.

The skaters spent last week training in Laurel, Md., with Murphy, who also created Zhang's singles programs. They turned to Murphy, one of the founders (with Nathan Birch) of the Next Ice Age Company, after seeing his work with Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill, for whom he has choreographed for 15 years.

"We did the Evening with Champions show in Boston and saw Dorothy skate," Toth said. "Watching her do a program, we loved her stroking and the quality of her edges. We wanted that kind of skating influence in our own skating.

"We know we have the ability to do a program like "Clair de Lune" and do it well; it will all come in time."

Like Zhang and Toth, Donlan and Speroff have spent much of the summer focusing on improving their performance quality.

"We've been working on strengthening the connections in our programs, we've been working all summer long on that, actually," Speroff, 22, said. "Obviously, we're training the elements like always, but also focusing on the story, connection style, and just staying healthy and in shape."

The teams have another bit of history in common: Donlan, like Zhang, has only skated pairs in earnest since teaming with Speroff in 2009. Before that, she competed in singles, taking seventh place in U.S. novice the year Zhang won novice bronze. Unlike Zhang, she now focuses solely on pairs.

The team, who train under Bobby Martin, Carrie Wall and Sheryl Franks at Skating Club of Boston, skate their short to "Moonlight Sonata," and free to "Stairway to Heaven," both created by Franks, a 1980 Olympian (pairs with Michael Botticelli).

Donlan and Speroff hoped to cap their summer by competing at the Middle Atlantic Championships earlier this month, but a training accident ended that plan.

"I fell [on a throw] and hit my head," Donlan said a few days after the incident. "I had a minor concussion, but I'm feeling much, much better."

The team is known for "big tricks," especially their triple twist and throw triple Salchow. They have worked on perfecting their throw triple loop in a jump harness and expect to debut that element this season.

"Right now we're really working to get the levels on the death spiral and spins," Speroff said.

If the team has an Achilles' heel, it is side-by-side jumping. Donlan, in particular, finds the double Axel to be challenging.

"We're changing the order of the double Axels in the programs; now, they're not so late," Speroff, who won the 2004 U.S. intermediate pair title with Rachael Flatt and also partnered Brittany Chase for a time, said.

"The jumps are getting better all of the time. There is so much to work on. Last season, everything happened so quickly. This season, we have more difficult elements, more difficult programs. We're definitely getting there."