ST. LOUIS -- So what if they're long shots for a medal next month at the Torino Olympics?
Rena Inoue and John Baldwin gave fans something to remember Friday night by successfully landing one of the most difficult maneuvers in pairs figure skating.
Their throw triple axel was a first. No other couple -- not even the Russians and Chinese who have dominated this event -- have pulled off one of these gravity-defying babies.
Yet it wasn't the history they cared about most at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"Rena and I knew what we had tonight," Baldwin said. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy and we knew we had to pull off the best performance of our lives. But more importantly -- the Olympics are important to us -- but even more important was this title. This competition came first for us; the Olympics was second.
"To accomplish what we did tonight and get that title back, that's what we wanted, and we did it," he said.
They landed the 3½-revolution throw midway through their free skate, helping them jump from fourth place after a weak short program to their second U.S. crown in three years.
"We want to put our mark on the sport and push pairs figure skating to next level," Baldwin said.
Two U.S. Figure Skating officials confirmed no other couple has done the move in competition.
Finishing second were Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem, who were also second in the short program. That was good enough for their ticket to Torino when an international committee selected them. But no American pair is considered a medals threat next month, even with that throw triple axel in the U.S. champions' repertoire.
Inoue, a two-time Olympian in singles and pairs for Japan, and Baldwin started slowly. He barely saved his triple toe loop -- it wasn't artistic, but he stayed upright -- and their pace was slow. But then came the historic axel, which energized the couple and the
Driven on by the growing clamor from the audience and sensing an Olympic berth was at hand, the two veterans were spectacular the rest of the way. Their lifts were solid, their footwork impressive. By the conclusion, the fans were on their feet and Baldwin was pumping his arms as if he'd just scored a hat trick.
Even his parents came down from the upper seats to hug both of them at rinkside, moments after Baldwin, 32, gave Inoue, 29, a passionate kiss.
"I've kissed her before," Baldwin joked.
"I wasn't worried directly about the throw triple axel," she said. "I just wanted to make sure each position beforehand was right. Once I took off in the air, I try to pull back, keep myself straight. I just have to trust myself that it's going to be there."
It was. So was a trip to Torino.
Inoue and Baldwin got 181.05 points, followed by Hinzmann and Parchem with 165.82, a virtual rout.
Hinzmann and Parchem had two nice throws and some excellent footwork, but they earned second place more on their steadiness and lack of critical errors.
"We made a lot of big steps from last year to this year," he said. "It just felt good to go out there and skate another program we could be proud of."
Slipping below them were defending champions Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash, who faltered in the free skate as the final couple on the ice. They had won the short.
"It was like a deer in front of headlights," Lucash said. "I don't think we skated and performed anywhere near of what we were expecting to do."
Tiffany Scott, a former national champion and Olympian with another partner, and Rusty Fein, who skated in the next-to-last warmup, had an outstanding performance. But after finishing sixth in the short program, a climb to the top was too steep, and they
wound up fourth.
Just behind them were Naomi Nari Nam and Themistocles Leftheris, who've been together only since last summer. Nam, a former singles standout who was second at the 1999 nationals, missed five U.S. championships with an assortment of injuries.
They were third in the short program, and they were the lone top team to do a split triple twist but only had one throw triple, a salchow. Their inexperience showed, though, making them more a team for the future than for Turin.