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U.S. pairs ready for challenge in Ontario

Field includes reigning world champions, Olympic medalists

Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker make their Grand Prix Series debut at Skate America.
Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker make their Grand Prix Series debut at Skate America. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/17/2011) - The Skate America pairs event can be neatly described in one word: packed.

Not only will three-time and reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany make their season debut, but 2006 Olympic silver medalists Hao Zhang and Dan Zhang of China return to competition after missing the 2010-11 season with injury. European bronze medalists Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov of Russia and Canadian champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch will also be in the mix.

The U.S. counters with three national champions, all of whom claimed their victories with former partners.

Caydee Denney, who won the 2010 U.S. title with Jeremy Barrett, and John Coughlin, 2011 national champion with Caitlin Yankowskas, paired up in May and had promising results at summer competitions before winning bronze at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month.

The team has big pairs elements, including a triple twist, throw triples and side-by-side triple jumps. Now, the focus is on improving program components, especially in their "Nessun Dorma" free skate, which is choreographed by Marina Zoueva.

"Our long program has a lot of layers that we're exploring with [coaches] Dalilah [Sappenfield] and Larry [Ibarra], and our dance teacher, Kathy Johnson," Coughlin said. "They're helping us refine the feeling."

Sappenfield, who coaches the athletic duo in Colorado Springs, looks forward to squaring off against the world's top teams.

"I think [Caydee and John] can compete technically very well with them," she said. "Their elements, the triple twist and throws, are very big. The program components and unison are what we are really focused on improving."

Rockne Brubaker, a former two-time U.S. champion (with Keauna McLaughlin), and partner Mary Beth Marley will compete for the first time this season, having withdrawn prior to Nebelhorn.

"Mary Beth had a tissue bruise [on her ankle] from the outside of her boot from jumping, primarily practicing the triple toe," Brubaker, 25, said. "Obviously, Skate America was the competition we were really pointing toward, so we played it safe.

"Now, we're training great. She isn't in pain, and we're not worried about any injury."

The 16-year-old Marley, who also competes in junior ladies, had never skated pairs before teaming with Brubaker last summer. She passed her senior pairs tests Aug. 31, 2010, just beating the deadline to register for last season's U.S. qualifying competitions.

"I think a lot of people will see us at Skate America and maybe not recognize us," Brubaker said. "Mary Beth has come such a long way. This is really her first full season. She has made tremendous improvements."

The California-based skaters -- who will compete a short to music from Singin' in the Rain and a free to a Rachmaninoff piano concerto -- have focused on improving their triple twist.

"We've really re-worked it this year," Brubaker said. "It's bigger, higher and easier looking. It's going well, although it's still not quite where we want it to be.

Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin, sixth at the 2011 U.S. championships, are set to make their Grand Prix debut at Skate America. They placed seventh at Nebelhorn.

Moore-Towers and Moscovitch, who teamed in the spring of 2009, enjoyed surprising success last fall, winning silver at Skate America and Skate Canada and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

"We're trying to keep the same mentality and not focus on the results," Moscovitch said. "We want to go out with that same nothing-to-lose attitude."

The team's coaches, Kris and Kristi Wirtz, added more difficult transitions and steps to both of this season's programs, including a short to the quickstep "Borsalino" and free to music from Henry V.

"Both our routines are a big step up and have room to grow," Moscovitch said. "Last season, we felt we outgrew our programs. By the end, they felt stale."

The North American teams will likely have to post new personal bests to medal this week. Between them, Savchenko and Szolkowy, and Zhang and Zhang, have nine world and two Olympic medals. Bazarova and Larionov were fifth at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships, one spot above Coughlin and Yankowskas.

"You have to steer away from outcome-oriented thinking," Coughlin said. "You can't control what other skaters do. You can skate clean and finish third; you can make mistakes and win."