Denney, Barrett capture title, ticket to Vancouver

Pack your bags Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett.

The Floridian duo is headed to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, as the newly crowned U.S. Champions, a title they won Saturday at the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash. And their bringing their training mates Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig with them to the Games.

“It feels awesome,” said Denney, a 16-year-old who does not even have a driver’s license, as she looked at the gold medal hanging from her neck. The smile was a permanent fixture of the face of the spunky blond – who came to the nationals with a new short hair do.

The top two teams from the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., will also skate at the World Championships in March.

Two-time U.S. Champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who signed endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and Nike leading up to the event, cracked under the pressure. They pulled up to fifth place with 165.73 but U.S. Figure Skating‘s International Committee, which had a list of criteria for selecting athletes including past international performances, did not name them to the team, instead opting for the gold and silver medalists to move on.

It was a devastating blow to McLaughlin and Brubaker, who moved from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Southern California at the end of last season to train with famed coach John Nicks. Nicks is also coaching 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen in Spokane.

Denney and Barrett were overshadowed in the lead up to the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., by hype surrounding McLaughlin and Brubaker, who seemed like locks for the team until this weekend’s competition began. But McLaughlin and Brubaker made uncharacteristic rookie mistakes in both programs, and at times looked sloppy, while Denney and Barrett performed like old pros.

“It feels like a sucker punch to the stomach,” McLaughlin said about losing the national title. In their first nationals in 2007, also held in Spokane, the team won the junior title, and went on to win two more gold medals on the senior level.

“It’s one thing getting to the top and I think people don’t fully grasp the idea of what it’s like having to stay on top,” Brubaker said before the announcement of the Olympic team. “You hear people say it’s different and it is. Training year in and year out, there are always expectations constantly throughout the season, not just at competitions. Along with the title comes responsibility and those types of challenges.”

He added, “We love that title and rest assured, regardless of what happens, Olympic team or no Olympic team, we are going to get it back one day, maybe next year, maybe not, maybe the after that. I don’t know but we’ll get it back.”

Using the music of “Scheherazade,” Denney and Barrett easily won the free skate, scoring 127.29 points to increase their overall total to 190.30—almost 30 points higher than their previous personal best from the 2009 Four Continents Championship. The team received positive marks for all 12 program elements including the demanding side-by-side triple toes, a throw triple Lutz and side-by-side double Axel-double Axel sequence.

“When Caydee landed that triple loop near the end of the program, it was really hard for us to stay calm through the next three elements [two lifts and a spin],” Barrett said. “I wanted to start celebrating right after that. I knew we were skating better than we had ever skated before so it was really hard to stay focused.”

The pair was on auto pilot as they checked off one element after another.

“Before the event I was watching [Olympic silver medalist] Peter Carruthers talk about how much muscle memory he had before the Olympics and I couldn’t agree more,” Barrett said. “We train these programs so much. Once we got out there, we let our bodies take over.”

Denney and Barrett were never in question for Vancouver after receiving a standing ovation. But many believed that U.S. Figure Skating International Committee, which chooses the representatives based on national results and other competitions, would stick McLaughlin and Brubaker on the team. After all, until November’s Skate America, McLaughlin and Brubaker had medaled at every event they entered except the 2009 World Championships, where they were 11th.

“I think they know that we’re one of the most competitive U.S. teams internationally,” Brubaker said when asked after their skate if he thought the committee would consider them. “Our record speaks for itself. Sometimes, though, it’s about staying in the moment and doing it when it counts.”

After McLaughlin fell twice in the short program Friday, on the side-by-side jumps and the death spiral, both was able to stay on their feet in the free program. But the team was had problems on the opening combination jumps as well as other elements throughout, including the program ending lift and throw triple loop.

The problems made it easier for the committee to select the underdog silver medalists. Evora, the daughter of two Filipino immigrants, and Ladwig, who welcomed his first child in the fall, were third in both portions of the competition but edged out 2006 Olympians Rena Inoue and John Baldwin for the silver medal, 173.78 to 173.18.

“Dreams are made at a nationals,” said Evora, who is the long time girlfriend of Barrett.

She added, “The past is the past.”

Evora and Ladwig have been skating together for eight years, never once having made the World Championship team, something Denney and Barrett did last year in their first season together. Evora and Ladwig had never even finished higher than fourth at nationals until Saturday.

Both Inoue and Baldwin said that they believed the first and second place teams from nationals deserved to move on the Games, no matter who the two teams ended up being. Baldwin alluded later, however, that he and his fiancé were judged unfairly to ensure they would not compete at a second Olympic Winter Games.

“I was shocked,” Baldwin said. “It’s not like we got any downgrades or anything, but the judges do what they want to do. We have never been more comfortable than we are right now in our skating. To put out a program like that and not get rewarded for it, it’s a little discouraging.”

Inoue and Baldwin, twice the national champions, said their career will likely end in Spokane, and they did not accept an invitation to the Four Continents Championship later this month in Korea. Instead, the U.S. will be represented in Korea by Castile and Okolski, McLaughlin and Brubaker and Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, who were sixth overall despite a second place short program.

Olympic team alternates are Inoue and Baldwin, McLaughlin and Brubaker and Castile and Okolski. World team alternates are McLaughlin and Brubaker, Castile and Okolski, Yankowskas and Coughlin and Dobbs and Jacobsen.

“When I imagined how I would end my skating career, it was like that,” Inoue said as she wiped away tears, “I think that John and I couldn’t have performed any better than we did today. When you’re an athlete, you want to go out being on top.”

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