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Change of scenery serves Denney, Frazier well

Pairs team has shown tremendous growth since switching training venues

The union of pairs team Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier and coach John Zimmerman has proven to be a winning one.
The union of pairs team Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier and coach John Zimmerman has proven to be a winning one. (Klaus-Reinhold Kany)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(05/17/2013) - Sometimes inspiration can come from something as basic as forward crossovers.

That's what Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier discovered last month when Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy visited their rink in Coral Springs, Fla.

With their home rink in Chemnitz closed, Germany's four-time world pairs champions and their coach, Ingo Steuer, spent 2 1/2 weeks in the Sunshine State to relax a bit and work on their Olympic programs.

"It was incredible, for so many reasons," Frazier, 20, said. "Robin is very mature. You never see him get irritated; he's calm and mellow, yet he works harder than anyone I've ever seen."

Denney was thrilled to share the ice with one of her idols.

"Training with Aliona was just awesome," the 17-year-old said. "We worked with Ingo in private lessons and Saturday group lessons, and had our sessions with them. I learned so much."

Denney and Frazier's husband-and-wife coaching team, John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, had been preaching the benefits of "back-to-basics" training to their young pair. So the Germans' visit could not have been better timed.

"What Ingo does is in perfect synchronization with what we're trying to do, which is focus on stroking, line, speed," Zimmerman said. "He has Aliona and Robin take 30-45 minutes to do the most basic stroking you've ever seen: forward crossovers, hand in hand, in a circle. It's almost like going back to school figures, learning how to get the best grip on the ice and most efficient edge."

The approach takes Zimmerman back to his own competitive days more than a decade ago, when he and partner Kyoko Ina won three U.S. titles while training under Tamara Moskvina in Hackensack, N.J. There, the Americans shared the ice with Russian Olympic champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikhariludze.

"You could see the quality of the Russians' skating, how effortless it was," Zimmerman said. "I had to work three times as hard as Anton to be half as good. When the Germans were here, I could tell Haven and Brandon, 'This is how you do it. This is what makes things smooth, strong and fast.'"

Denney and Frazier are on the rise. They showed off polished programs and strong elements to place fifth at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Neb. A month later, they won gold at the 2013 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Milan, skating two solid programs, while the favored Russian team of Lina Fedorova and Maxim Miroshkin stumbled in its short.

"Doing well at nationals gave us confidence that we were improving and going in the right direction heading into junior worlds," Frazier said.

"Our confidence in Milan came from our training," Denney said.

The two Florida natives have a long and complicated history. As roller skaters, they won a silver medal in an elementary roller pairs U.S. championship before switching to the ice and competing together from 2005 to 2008, when they won the U.S. intermediate bronze medal.

After that, their paths diverged. Denney trained in Florida, first under Jim Peterson and then Zimmerman, winning the 2009 U.S. novice silver medal with Daniel Raad. Frazier trained in Dalilah Sappenfield's group in Colorado Springs, Colo., and won the 2010 U.S. novice bronze medal with Mandy Garza.

After the 2011 U.S. Championships, the two reunited in Colorado Springs, where Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra coached them to the 2012 U.S. junior title and a fourth-place finish at the 2012 World Junior Championships. Last fall, they made the move from Colorado Springs to work with Zimmerman and Fontana.

"The change kind of motivated me as an athlete to work harder," Frazier said. "We came to work on our skating skills and get a different perspective on the sport."

The two training environments couldn't be more different. In Colorado Springs, Sappenfield oversees a stellar group of elite U.S. pairs, including Haven's older sister, Caydee, and her partner John Coughlin, the 2012 U.S. champions; and reigning U.S. silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim.

In contrast, Denney and Frazier are the only elite pair at the three-sheet Coral Gables facility, although several teams from Italy and Canada will train there for part of the summer.

"Haven and Brandon came well prepared and technically sound," Zimmerman said. "Colorado Springs is awesome, and Dalilah's track record speaks for itself."

"Dalilah has a big camp, and it's great," Frazier said. "For us, it was time we needed specific, detail work. We get a lot of ice time and a flexible schedule.

"The four of us make a great team. John knows exactly how I'm doing the harder technical elements. He can take Haven and [demonstrate] with her."

Fontana, a five-time Italian champion, adds her own expertise to the mix.

"With Silvia there, we have the best of both worlds," Frazier said. "She's great with the jumps. She works on our edges and helps pinpoint choreography. She had great input and can really nitpick weaknesses."

"It's so much fun working with Silvia," Denney said. "She has so much heart and passion, it's inspiring. She's helping me get into that place of pure joy she has for skating."

This season promises tough competition for the two U.S. pairs spots at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and Denney and Frazier plan to be in the mix. In addition to targeting their program components scores, they're working to add more technical difficulty to their programs.

"When we came to John and Silvia, our jumps were one of our weaker points," Frazier said. "We worked on our technique and did well with [triple Salchows] going into nationals, although there were still a few bumps. This year we're hoping to add [triple] toes or flips, and the flips have been easier for us. We're putting in a carry lift, which is new for us, and we've been practicing throw triple flip."

For choreography, they're sticking with Canada's Julie Marcotte, who created last season's well-received La Strada free skate. This season, Marcotte choreographed their free to Notre-Dame de Paris, the music Meryl Davis and Charlie White used to win their second world ice dance title. Over the next several weeks, Marcotte will travel to Florida to finalize a new short program.

"Meryl and Charlie are huge role models for us, especially this past year," Frazier said. "We've studied their free dance and how they became those characters. That's another tool we can use to feed off of each other on the ice. So far, it's going even better than we expected."

And Zimmerman added, "If [a program] is perfect in two weeks, it's not that good of a program for you. This free skate is something we can add nuance to throughout the season."

Denney and Frazier plan to compete at Skate Detroit in July and hope for a senior B assignment. As world junior champions, they likely qualify for two Grand Prix events this fall.

Zimmerman sees those competitions as stepping stones to their main goal: the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"Again, that's something I learned from Tamara," he said. "[Haven and Brandon] are young; they like to go out like race cars, 100 miles an hour. I have to pull back a little -- not too much, but enough to make them understand we're taking it step by step."

Or crossover by crossover.

Reporter's notebook: Parents of Sofia, aged 13 1/2 months, Fontana and Zimmerman expect their second child later next month ... A steady stream of visiting coaches and experts visit Coral Springs, including Audrey Weisiger, Jozef Sabovcik, Chris Conte and Phillip Dulebohn. John Kerr arrives next week. "I believe in surrounding yourself with good people, taking in what they have to offer," Zimmerman said.