Stevens tackles illness to win crown with Zaitsev

Determined Budd, Cheban settle for silver; Middleton, Hennings grab bronze

Christina Zaitsev and Ernie Utah Stevens came from behind to claim the novice pairs title.
Christina Zaitsev and Ernie Utah Stevens came from behind to claim the novice pairs title. (Jay Adeff)


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By Troy Schwindt, special to
(01/21/2013) - Ernie Utah Stevens arrived at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., on Monday night feeling a little weak from a stomach bug that he caught the night before.

But despite feeling under the weather, Stevens wasn't about to let down his pairs partner of three years, Christina Zaitsev.

The duo, second after the short program, turned in a powerful and productive free skate to "Toccata" by Bach to claim the novice pairs crown at the 2013 U.S. Championships with an overall score of 123.30 points.

Short program leaders Kaitlin Budd and Nikita Cheban experienced a fall on their side-by-side double Axels early in their "Ice Symphony" program and settled for the silver medal.

"I had a rough night last night," Stevens, 19, said. "I was throwing up and I was throwing up at lunch today. It was a struggle to get through that.

"I told myself, though, that I have to do this for Christina and myself. We have had an unforgettable season and there was no way we were going to withdraw. The only thing in our minds was skating a clean program and winning."

Despite the illness, Stevens looked steady anchoring the team's lifts and Zaitsev, 13, was rock solid in landing the throws. Their spins earned a Level 3 and a Level 4, while one of their lifts garnered a Level 4.

Their coach -- who is also Zaitsev's father -- Sergei Zaitsev, said the team arrived in Omaha well prepared.

"Hard work is the main reason for their success," he said. "Plus, they proved that they could fight, which is something I am proud of as a coach and a father."

Budd, 16, and Cheban, 20, executed a pair of Level 3 lifts and rallied nicely after Budd fell on their double Axels.

"This was our first nationals together," Cheban said. "We'll be back next year as juniors, you can expect that."

One of their coaches, Jason Dungjen, said he was proud that his first-year team went all out on their double Axels.

"You look at it internationally and you really have to start jumping," he said. "So, we figured we'll put it out there and see. You live by the sword and die by the sword."

The team landed their double Axels in the short program.

The team's primary coach, Sergei Petrovski, said that Budd and Cheban have a great foundation to be successful moving forward as juniors.

"They have the tricks," Petrovski said. "When you go international, you have to have double Axels, triple Salchow throws. We need to work on their components, unison, stroking, and get that second mark going. It's going to take time."

Elise Middleton and Robert Hennings, third after the short program, held serve and captured the bronze medal with 109.85 points. Middleton, 13, and Hennings, 16, performed a moving program to Immortal Beloved by Solti. Their only big mistake came in the final moments of the program when they attempted a lift and fell to the ice.

"I think we rushed into the last element," Hennings said. "We were feeling good going through the program, saying we've got this. I think I let the lift get behind me. I have a tendency to keep it behind my head instead of forward. It was inevitable."

Hennings suffered a minor cut on his head, but passed it off as part of competing in skating.

"It's just a little scratch," he said.

Aya Takai and Brian Johnson earned the pewter medal with 102.71 points.