U.S. Champions hope to rejuvenate pairs program

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne BrubakerNo American pairs team has won a medal at the World Championships since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman took the bronze medal in 2002. Two-time U.S. champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker hope to end that drought when the World Championships come McLaughlin’s hometown.

The World Championships are March 22-29  in Los Angeles. The pairs competition starts with the short program Tuesday at the Staples Center. On Wednesday, the first World Champions of 2009 will be crowned after the pairs free skate.

“This last part of the season, what we’ve really been trying to focus on is, for Worlds, going and just putting out two great skates,” Brubaker said. “Without thinking about just the medals, we know that, if we go and we skate really well and we put out two really solid performances, that we have the ability to be on the medal stand.”

It will mark the World Champion debut for McLaughlin and Brubaker, as she was too young to compete at last year’s competition. But the pair has been Worlds caliber since joining together after the 2005-06 season.

McLaughlin and Brubaker medaled in 11 consecutive competitions before a fifth-place finish at the 2009 Four Continents Championships. Among the medals they collected include: gold at the 2006 Junior Grand Prix Final and 2007 World Junior Championships; silver at 2007 Cup of China; 2007 NHK Trophy and 2008 Skate America; bronze at 2008 Skate Canada.

They hope to start a new medal streak in Los Angeles.

McLaughlin and Brubaker’s largest successes may be their three consecutive national titles, including their junior pairs victory in 2007, but they have all the skills necessary to compete with the world. They changed parts of their short program from Nationals to Worlds to maximize their strengths.

“It’s gonna look quite a bit different,” Brubaker said. “The first part is the same up to our triple twist but after that, quite a bit of it is different. It’s definitely more comfortable. It definitely plays to the judges a little bit better and it works with the flow.”

Joining McLaughlin and Brubaker in Los Angeles are U.S. silver medalists Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett. The Florida-based couple, who won the Nationals short program, shocked the skating world by claiming a spot on the World team after forming their partnership approximately six months earlier.

Denney and Barrett’s only previous international experience is a fourth-place finish at the Nebelhorn Trophy and a sixth-place showing at Four Continents. The pair also won the Eastern Sectional Championship to advance to nationals.

To qualify three American pairs for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the Americans’ placements in Los Angeles cannot exceed 13. The United States has qualified only two couples for the most recent Winter Games.

McLaughlin and Brubaker are ranked eighth while their American counterparts are unranked.

“Most of these teams that are in the top 10 in the world, they’ve been on the international circuit or they’ve been competing internationally for five to 10 years,” Brubaker said. “Most of them already have an Olympics under their belt.”

International competitors include reigning World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who are the top-ranked pair in the world. Also competing are China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong (No. 2), the former World champions who won this season’s Grand Prix Final and Four Continents Championship.

The reigning World bronze medalists Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison (No. 5), who compete for Canada, also will compete as will the 2006 Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang (No. 3) of China.

All three American couples come into the World Championships with a chance to medal. On the prestigious Grand Prix of Figure Skating circuit, each of three dance couples representing the United States in Los Angeles medaled in at least one event.

Leading the charge are the newly crowned U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who recently won the Four Continents Championships. Their season also includes Skate Canada gold, Cup of Russia bronze and Grand Prix Final bronze. At the 2008 World Championships, the duo finished sixth.

Nationals silver medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates come to Los Angeles after winning the bronze medal at Four Continents. The twosome won the bronze medal at the NHK after finishing fourth at Skate America. They are the 2008 Junior World champions.

The 2009 World Championships mark the return to competition for five-time U.S. champions Belbin and Agosto. They withdrew from December’s Grand Prix Final and January’s national championships because of Agosto’s back injury.

Before the injury, Belbin and Agosto collected silver medals this season at Skate America and the Cup of China. Los Angeles marks the ninth consecutive World Championship appearance. The Olympic silver medalists won the World silver medal in 2005 before taking back-to-back bronze medals in 2006 and 2007. They were fourth last season.

International competitors include Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who won the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, and Russia’s reigning World bronze medalists Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, the European champions. The Russians are ranked second and fourth respectively in the world.

Also competing are Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (No. 7). The reigning World silver medalists sat out the fall season because of an injury, but returned with a win at the Canadian Championships and a silver medal at the Four Continents.

Davis and White currently are the third-ranked couple in the world, according to the Ice Network standings. Belbin and Agosto, hurt by their absence from the Grand Prix Final, are No. 5 while Samuelson and Bates are No. 9.

The American couples should easily qualify three teams to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The combined placement of the two highest finishing U.S. teams must equal 13 or less.

The compulsory dance kicks off the World Championship competition on Tuesday. The original dance is Thursday while the free dance, which decides the World Champions, is Friday.

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