JAMIE M. BLANCHARD
Figure Skaters Online
Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin are in the hunt for their first national title at the 2011 U.S. Championships this week in Greensboro, N.C. And with a Cup of China bronze medal to show for their efforts on this season’s Grand Prix circuit, the Colorado Springs, Colo., based pair is among the favorites for gold.
But for Coughlin, the event is about more than the short program and free skate.
“Skating has been therapeutic for me and an escape from challenges this past year has thrown at me that were much bigger than a skating competition,” Coughlin said. On February 24, just a month after Yankowskas and Coughlin missed out on qualifying for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Coughlin’s mom Stacy Leigh Holmes Coughlin passed away after a lengthy battle with illness.
“I’m skating for me and for my mom, for the family I still have, and the friends that have helped me along the way,” he said. “I want our performances to be something that people remember. I want our story, my journey this year, to be crystal clear: The national championships, in front of American fans that have watched me grow as an athlete and a person, is my favorite place to be. It feels like home in a way.”
Coming into nationals, Yankowskas and Coughlin have the momentum of a solid international campaign behind them. Besides placing third in Beijing, they were fourth at NHK Trophy and the Four Continents Championship last year. The duo also finished sixth at the 2010 U.S. Championships, seventh in 2009 and sixth in 2008, their debut season.
Before leaving for Greensboro, Coughlin sat down with Figure Skaters Online to talk about the season.
The season has been good for you and Caitlin so far. Congratulations! Can you give just your general impressions of how the season is progressing towards nationals?
The season has been good for us so far. We are on track with the goals that we set for ourselves at the start. At this point we have trained in a way that will give us the best chance to put on a show at nationals. Now we need to just go out there and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
How big of a motivator was not making last year’s Olympic team in your success this season?
We were obviously upset about not making the team. That is a goal in every U.S. team athlete’s career. This year isn’t about redemption however, at least for me personally. Skating has been therapeutic for me and an escape from challenges this past year has thrown at me that were much bigger than a skating competition. I’m skating for me and for my mom, for the family I still have, and the friends that have helped me along the way. I want our performances to be something that people remember. I want our story, my journey this year, to be crystal clear: The national championships, in front of American fans that have watched me grow as an athlete and a person, is my favorite place to be. It feels like home in a way.
How would you rate your Grand Prix season?
Grand Prix season was great for us because we accomplished what we needed to. Our goals were to challenge the two Olympic from the U.S., to show we could skate consistent long programs on a big stage, and win our first medal at a senior Grand Prix event. I feel like we succeeded in all of those areas.
You were fourth at 2010 Four Continents and fourth again at the NHK Trophy before you won the bronze medal at the Cup of China. What was it like to finally stand on the podium and see the flag being raised for you?
It was wonderful to see our flag raised as we stood on the podium. I think what meant even more to us was being able to look back on Four Continents, Indy Challenge, and NHK Trophy beforehand, and see that we had put together a good body of work this season. Momentum is very valuable in sports.
Is there anything specifically that you are trying to work on from the Grand Prix season?
We are tweaking things here and there, trying to max out our points. Our footwork sequence is completely new. It looks more ice dancer-ish with lots of partnering through the turns and a greater sense of connection throughout. Our primary goal is to make sure our components continue to grow. We want our story to evolve as the season progresses. How we portrayed what we were feeling in June and July should be different than our interpretation in January. Our programs will be an up to the moment reflection of what we’re feeling.
What are your goals for the U.S. Championships?
I got some good advice from some friends in recent days. Johnny Weir told me to “Stay in my bubble” at the competition. I plan to enjoy the crowd and the spectacle of nationals but I think he is on to something and I’ll keep close to my family and gang from Colorado for support. Outside distractions are so 2009-2010. Keauna McLaughlin also told me to “Enjoy every moment.” I think no matter what happens with our result I want to look back at next week and say I enjoyed the process. Johnny and Cheeks know something about satisfying performances, so I’m listening closely.
Just looking at the average scores of U.S. pairs throughout the season, it looks like you have about a one point advantage on the other pairs. You also have that Grand Prix medal. Do you consider yourselves favorites? Are you and Caitlin feeling any pressure for nationals?
While I think we welcome the support of people hoping we win, I think Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett are the U.S. until someone proves otherwise. They deserve that respect and I would want it if I was defending the title. It will be a good battle and I think four or five of us have a legitimate chance. We’ll all have to go out there and settle it on the ice. I promise skating fans will get their money’s worth.
Who do you see as your biggest challengers at the U.S. Championships?
I think if we skate well, we will be as good as anyone. In this system, you truly compete against yourself. If we set personal bests, we’ll be happy with our result.
Last year, you had some difficulty with the free skate throughout the season but it seems like you’re past that and able to put together two good programs. Personally speaking, what do you see as your biggest obstacles en route to the podium?
I think there will be a lot of emotion being at nationals. I will be on Cloud 9 because my dad and sister will be there for the first time in years. But at the same time, there will be tears because my Mom is gone. I whisper to her each day before I skate my long. And I’m going to have to keep my heart in check when I kneel down to take that starting pose.
Your free program actually serves as a tribute to your mother. Can you talk a little bit about the program?
Our free program to “Ave Maria” is a tribute to her. It shows how I see her for moments in dreams and in my waking life. I am so blissfully happy she is there, and then lost when I realize it wasn’t real. The end of the program leaves me happy with the memories we have, and me holding her hand. Dalilah thought it would help me heal and force me to deal with the loss if we did something like this. It was hard, nearly impossible at first. Marina Zoueva has looked after me very well over the years, and I am grateful that she found this special program within her to help me put my emotions to music. I will be strong enough by nationals to take everyone on that journey with me.
How difficult is it for you to skate a program dedicated to your mother?
It goes by so fast because I am so lost in the choreography. Each movement, head turn, and expression has meaning for me. It will be motivation in the sense that I will want to do the program justice and highlight all the work we put into it.
One of the last times that we chatted, you told me that one thing your mother told you before she passed away is that she wanted you and Ryan Bradley to keep skating. How emotional has this season been for you knowing that you’re not only skating but you’re doing better than you’ve ever done before?
I was scared at first to do this without her. What had been an escape from life had become a constant reminder that she was gone. It’s no coincidence that we are stronger this year. We took a beating in every way, and we’re still standing. I wish she could be here to see that person I am growing into. I try to make her and my father proud.
You are particularly close to Ryan and are not only friends but training mates. How meaningful is it for you to still have him competing, especially with your mother always having encouraged you and him together?
It will mean a lot to me to have him at nationals. Our families are very close and always have been. Ryan and I used to get in trouble together at local competitions while our sisters were competing and our mothers were judging. We took our dads to a Chiefs game in Kansas City as a Christmas present and had a great time. He has been there for me every step of the way. He is never too busy to talk when I have been struggling. And he knows I’ll always be there for him too.
He is a wonderful friend and I think people underestimate what he has done for the sport. I’ll be front row to watch him skate, and I’ll be the craziest fan of them all, as usual. I’m in his corner, as always. He is having his sister put him on the ice this year, which will be a nice memory for both of them. He has been training on pair sessions recently, I think we are more his kind of people.
Thank you so much for chatting with us John. Good luck.
Photo courtesy of Leah Adams
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