Denney, Coughlin have luck, village on their side

Revamped programs unleash power; Dean, Marcotte, Wylie are all aboard

Things are looking up for 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin.
Things are looking up for 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin. (YSPN Photography)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(08/13/2013) - These days, it takes a village to create the perfect (or near-perfect) figure skating program.

Coaches lay the technical groundwork. Choreographers select music and moves that present skaters to best advantage, while judges and technical experts impart wisdom. Trainers keep bodies humming; mentors build confidence.

Luckily for Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, all of the above were ready and able to pitch in this spring.

"Someone is looking out for us," Coughlin, 27, said. "Too many positive things have been happening."

It didn't feel that way last December, when Coughlin underwent hip surgery to repair a torn left labrum. The Colorado Springs-based skaters, who won two bronze medals in the 2012 Grand Prix Series, were unable to defend their U.S. title. Then, despite Coughlin's vigorous physical therapy at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), they had to sit out the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.

"We tried to get ready in time for worlds, but considering John's health and the well-being of his hip, there was only so much we could do," Denney, 20, said. "We didn't want to rush back too quickly."

"Our ultimate goal is the Olympics," Coughlin said. "We scheduled the surgery when we did so that I could recover in plenty of time for this season. If I had rushed back, all the work I put into rehab could have been for naught."

Coughlin returned to the ice the day after the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in late January, but it took months to regain full strength. The break from competition gave them extra time to decide on music and choreography for the Olympic season.

Good thing, because that turned into a journey.

"We went to Julie Marcotte in Quebec this spring, and she gave us two beautiful programs," Coughlin said. (Marcotte created a short program to the soundtrack of the 1997 animated feature Anastasia, and a free skate to music from Casablanca.)

"Her work is outstanding. We loved the programs, but I was still getting back to full strength," he continued. "We had an honest conversation with our coach (Dalilah Sappenfield), judges and family members, and decided it was ambitious to get two new programs so soon after such a traumatic injury. Throughout the process, Julie was an incredible person to work with."

Denney and Coughlin felt the tug of Phantom of the Opera, last season's free skate. Choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, the program was only performed in international competition three times.

"We decided to latch on to something familiar and visited Julie again to refresh the Phantom program and give it the intricacies that will make it stand out," Coughlin said. "We like what Julie had done to bring new character and life to Phantom. She helped unleash the powerful style we want in our skating."

"We never really finished the Phantom program the way we wanted," Sappenfield said. "We changed some music, so the ending is stronger. I created a new carry lift, which I wanted to do last year."

Judges who saw the program during the Broadmoor Open in late June liked it so much, they wanted to see similarly explosive power in the pair's short program.

"Their message was, 'Don't depart from your bread and butter in an Olympic year. You're powerful skaters with big tricks; set that off with powerful music,'" Coughlin said.

"Everyone loved the choreography; it was more about the feeling of the music," Sappenfield said. "The judges wanted to see power right off the bat."

In the end, the skaters decided melodrama from Puccini suited them better than lighter fare.

"The judges wanted music that would let us skate more free, and that led us to Tosca," Coughlin said. "Obviously, choreography is not interchangeable. Luckily, Christopher Dean was in town."

The 1984 Olympic ice dance champion (with Jayne Torvill) and star of Dancing on Ice resides much of the year in England but lives in Colorado Springs. He lent his formidable talents to the Tosca short.

"The beginning of the program is iconic Christopher Dean," Coughlin said. "It's dramatic, with breathtaking lifts and tricks."

"There are dance lifts in both programs," he continued. "The choreographers are dancers at heart. If you're not twirling and creating an intricate picture, you're not working hard enough."

Sappenfield especially valued Dean's artistic input.

"It's good for the kids to have a male figure that solely focuses on the components," she said. "To see those things from a male point of view is different. ... He enforces those little details that are so important."

Denney and Coughlin displayed both programs during the Colorado Championships earlier this month. Judges were enthusiastic, awarding 67.05 points for the short, 132.51 for the free and 199.56 total, the highest score the pair has ever achieved.

"We were lucky to get in contact with judges early this season," Coughlin said. "Just a few months ago, we were on the road to recovery. We happened upon Julie, and then Christopher Dean was in the rink when we needed help.

"Both of them were willing to do what they could for the greater good of the team. You can't say that about all choreographers. They are very passionate people, perfectionists about their work. Julie was so willing to take our feedback and appreciate our inner struggle."

Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, has also been on hand, lending support as a mentor.

"Paul was here for a few weeks this summer, and he will be coming back," Sappenfield said. "He had a great motivational session with all of my skaters, speaking about his own experiences and giving them a lot of good ideas on how to work through things, especially during the Olympic year."

"We've enjoyed it very much," Denney said. "It has been an honor working with people to prepare for the season."

As for their technical elements, it's been back to basics with Sappenfield at Colorado Springs' World Arena.

"We have a new carry lift in the free skate and it's set well to the music," Denney said. "It's a fun lift to perform. We've worked hard on the death spiral; it's improved quite a bit. Now we're working hard on the programs, to have them grow."

"If anyone ever asks me what my greatest accomplishment was as a coach, I'm going to say the death spiral," Sappenfield said. "The back inside and back outside [death spirals] were not great for her. We've really gone back and learned it, and it's a good element for them now. We hope for Level 4 this year."

Next stop is U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp later this month. From there, it's the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City in September, before Skate America in October.

"We always ask for a senior B to test our programs out before an international panel and gain feedback before our first Grand Prix," Coughlin said. "It's also an opportunity to earn ISU ranking points, which affect your start order at worlds and other competitions.

"To gain all that, without the stress on the body of international travel, is amazing. The schedule is ideal for us. We're traveling a little less, and that lets us maximize our training time, so we're lucky there, too."

Reporter's notebook: Another of Sappenfield's pairs, U.S. silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, are back on the ice following an injury to Knierim. "On July 1, he fractured the bottom of his left fibula," Sappenfield said. "He had surgery, and we were told there was a four-week turnaround. He's had an incredible recovery, ahead of plan." She added the skaters are doing all of their elements except side-by-side triple jumps. "We will run the programs at Champs Camp. After that, we have the green light to start doing triples again."