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McLaughlin, Brubaker collect first skating pairs win

1/26/2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker got
the title, John Baldwin Jr. got the girl.

McLaughlin and Brubaker, last year's junior world champions,
served notice they're going to be a threat on the senior stage as
well, winning the pairs title at the U.S. Figure Skating
Championships on Saturday. Their overall score of 190.74 was more
than seven points ahead of Baldwin and Rena Inoue, two-time U.S.
champions. Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, last year's champions,
were third.

"I can't believe we're national champions," McLaughlin said,
her eyes wide.

Inoue and Baldwin have plenty to celebrate, too. As they took
their bows, Baldwin dropped to his knees and asked his longtime
girlfriend to marry him. Stunned, she could only stare at him at
first.

"I didn't know. He didn't tell me and I don't think he told
anybody," Inoue said. "At first I was just so shocked. I didn't
know what was going on here."

Said Baldwin, "I told her she's the person I want to spend the
rest of my life with, how much respect I have for her and that
everything I've accomplished in my career and on the ice is because
of her."

As the crowd cheered, Baldwin asked again. With tears rolling
down her face, Inoue said yes.

There were no such surprises in ice dance, just more surpassing
excellence from Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. The Olympic silver
medalists won their record-tying fifth title with a technically
ambitious and beautifully executed performance to music by Chopin.
They scored 216.07 points, easily beating training partners Meryl
Davis and Charlie White.

The only thing tarnishing McLaughlin and Brubaker's win is the
knowledge that they can't take on the world -- yet. She only turned
15 in September, missing the age cutoff for the world championships
in March by two months.

Still, you can bet the Germans and Chinese will be keeping an
eye on these two.

"We want to be the first American team to win the Olympics,
that's our big goal," McLaughlin said. "That's my dream."

Later Saturday, 14-year-old Mirai Nagasu attempts to become the
second-youngest woman to win the U.S. title.

The United States has long been mediocre in pairs, but
McLaughlin and Brubaker are already defying expectations.

It takes most couples years to develop the harmony and unison of
a world-class pairs team, but McLaughlin and Brubaker have had it
since they started skating together just two years ago.

They routed the junior ranks last year, winning every
competition they entered. They qualified for the senior Grand Prix
final -- they had to withdraw after the short program when he
developed cellulitis -- and were, without question, the class of the
field at nationals.

"The first step in doing anything is believing you can do it
first," Brubaker said. "From the minute we got together, we had
big goals for the team."

No one else can match their speed or their power. But they're
deceptively graceful, doing every trick with such beauty and
control it looks like child's play. On their lifts, he carries her
as if she's weightless and twirls her in the air as easily as a
baton.

But what truly sets them apart is her expressiveness --
especially at such a young age. Skating to "Romeo and Juliet,"
she displayed all the passion and angst of the star-crossed lover.

"I put my heart out to the audience and I let them see what I
was feeling and I told the story of Romeo and Juliet," said
McLaughlin, whose mother was a former show skater and now helps
coach the two.

Their only flaw was her falling on their side-by-side triple
salchow, but it wasn't enough to keep them from the top of the
podium.

When they finished their performance, Brubaker dropped to the
ice and pumped his fists while McLaughlin skated away, holding her
hands to her face.

"Leaving the ice, as I was gliding backwards, I looked around
and saw people clapping and the lights. It's definitely something
I'll never forget," Brubaker said. "I look forward to doing that
other places, hopefully world competitions, the Olympics maybe."

The rest of the world can consider itself warned.

Though Belbin and Agosto are one of the best dance teams in the
world, they spent part of the offseason working on basic skills --
and the results show. They have such incredible speed and skill
they don't lose any speed during their lifts, covering half of the
rink on one. They have great balance and acrobatic skills, too. On
one lift, he was in a squat while she balanced on his knees,
completely horizontal to the ice.

What makes them most entertaining to watch, though, is their
performance skill. Every inch of them, from the tips of their
fingers to the blades on their skate, conveys their emotion and
passion.