Breaking up is not hard to do in U.S. pairs

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It's like that old Phil Collins song goes: "Doesn't anybody stay together anymore?"

While the U.S. has emerged as an ice dance power, and U.S. men and women always hang around the upper echelons of the individual ranks, the lack of an elite pairs team on the world stage has been a sore spot in American figure skating.

Could the problem begin to be remedied this weekend here at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships?

The pairs short program opened senior competition at HP Pavilion on Thursday evening, with Rockne Brubaker, a two-time national champion, and partner Mary Beth Marley taking the early lead after a clean skate.

With two years until the 2014 Sochi Olympics, U.S. Figure Skating officials are practically ready to get into the business of couples counseling to get the pairs program on track. U.S. Figure Skating president Patricia St. Peter said considerable "effort, analysis and thought" has gone into how to improve U.S. fortunes in pairs. "This has been the subject of a lot of discussion."

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Rockne Brubaker and Mary Beth Marley lead with a score of 65.80 heading into Saturday's free skate.

The key, it would seem, is longevity. The past three U.S. pairs champions have ended their partnerships in the season following their title wins. All these breakups are simply bad for the sport.

"There are some pairs that are extremely strong, and they have been skating together for a long time," St. Peter said.

The U.S. hasn't had a pairs medal in the World Championships since 2002 and no Olympic medalists since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard at the 1988 Calgary Games. The last Olympic Games, in Vancouver, marked the first time the U.S. didn't have a pairs participant among the top-nine finishers.

But St. Peter acknowledged that U.S. Figure Skating can't force teams together, although it may be able to do a better job mentoring them through the tough times.

"It's tough enough for individual athletes, but for a pair of athletes, it can be very difficult," St. Peter said. "In any personal relationships it can be a struggle, and we are trying to provide additional emotional and mental support."

U.S. Figure Skating executive director David Raith said the federation has been in touch with the U.S. Olympic Committee for support.

"It's something we are all aware of and we are working toward a better result," Raith said.

Brubaker and Marley have been skating together for two years. They pulled off a strong, clean skate to "Singing in the Rain" and forged ahead of John Coughlin and Caydee Denney (60.88) to lead with a score of 65.80 heading into Saturday's free skate. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig (competing together since 2002), the only American skating pair ranked among the top 20 in the world, were second at 61.27.

Brubaker won the U.S. title in 2008 and 2009 skating with Keauna McLaughlin; in 2005, he won the U.S junior championship with partner Mariel Miller.

"It is difficult to start over, and when you look at some of the teams that have been really successful, longevity is a key," Brubaker said. "I think Mary Beth and I are on the right track. It's going to take some years, we have a lot of growing to do. Tonight, I actually haven't felt that good on the ice in a couple of years."

Coughlin thought he was retiring from skating after winning the U.S. title in 2011 with then-partner Caitlin Yankowskas. They finished sixth at the World Championships, the highest finish for a U.S. team in a non-Olympic year since 1997. Six days later, his retirement ended their four-year partnership.

His plan was to continue living in Colorado and work with coach/choreographer Delilah Sappenfield in the hope of getting some more coaching work from her and perhaps get booked into some ice shows as a solo skater.

Weeks earlier, Denney's three-year partnership ended with Jeremy Barnett (the pair skated together in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics) when he decided to retire. Denney's younger sister, Haven, was beginning a new partnership in Colorado with Brandon Frazier in the juniors division (they won the junior pairs event earlier in the week) and the family moved to Colorado. Denney was hoping to find a new partnership.

Thirteen days after Coughlin and Yankowskas split, Denney and Coughlin announced their new partnership. Coughlin and Denney, skating in their first U.S. championships event together, got off to a great start in the short program, executing a beautiful triple lutz lift and skating with speed and unison. But Denney could not land the throw triple flip, landing sprawled on the ice.

"I think it was a little excitement from both of us, trying to make it huge and perfect," Coughlin said.

Denney admitted she and Coughlin are still figuring out how to skate together.

"It's something that's not perfected yet," Denney said. "We've come a long way in a short amount of time, but I think there's a lot to improve upon, in terms of timing and getting more in sync with each other. But we feel very comfortable on the ice together."

Coughlin said he believes the dissolution of their previous partnerships is "just sports."

"They are team events for a reason, and you have to find the right mix," Coughlin said. "Our partnerships dissolved for very different reasons. I think it's more difficult to become mentally in sync. Physically, we are both very talented athletes."

Evora and Ladwig, who are second after the short program, have been competing together since 2002. They also got off to a bumpy start in the short program, as Evora fell on their side-by-side triple toe loop. But they are in strong position to medal heading into the free skate.

"In a world view, U.S. pairs seems as though we are not very strong," Evora said. "But I know that we don't have many pairs right now. I remember a time when there were 22 pairs [competing] and, right now, there are only 13. I actually see a lot of opportunity. I think in the quality of our pairs, we are doing well."

Coughlin said he doesn't feel any specific responsibility to lift U.S. pairs skating.

"I think we have a responsibility to ourselves to leave everything out on the ice every time," Coughlin said. "I look at American pairs skating in a different light than a lot of people. … The faces are pretty familiar and pretty steady. Obviously, Caydee and I are together and we've both been there before. Rockne has been here. Obviously, Amanda and Mark have been there before. In that respect, we are consistent and we are growing together and we are going to push together as a group."

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