Evora-Ladwig chosen for Olympics

Updated: January 16, 2010, 11:13 PM ET
Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A few months back, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were doing a simulated competition with training partners Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig and the other pairs teams in their rink.

"There was just one moment when they were on ice and I thought, 'You know, if we keep this up, we could get two Florida teams at the Olympics. I just know it," Evora recalled Saturday. "And here we are now."

On their way to Vancouver.

Denney and Barrett continued their meteoric rise Saturday, winning the U.S. title just 18 months after they began skating together with a high-energy, action-packed "Sheherazade" program that overwhelmed the competition. Evora and Ladwig weren't quite as impressive, but were solid enough to finish second overall and claim the other Olympic spot.

When Denney and Barrett finished, she crossed herself and then punched the air, her smile lighting up the entire arena. Coach Jim Peterson was overcome with emotion at the boards, burying his head in fellow coach Alison Smith's shoulder.

"Our free skate today was one of the best programs we've ever done," Denney said. "It was just so much fun, and I will remember that forever."

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker won't forget this day for a long time, either, but for very different reasons. The former prodigies, considered a lock for Vancouver after winning the national title in 2008 and '09, produced perhaps the biggest surprise at nationals, taking themselves out of contention with yet another flawed performance. They finished fifth overall after making three significant mistakes.

"Sometimes things don't always work out the way you'd like them to," Brubaker said. "And we're young. We never thought about doing just one Olympics."

If McLaughlin and Brubaker stick around, the Americans might actually have the makings of a solid pairs program, something no one would have imagined two years ago.

Of course, Denney and Barrett weren't even skating together then.

They had skated together briefly in the summer of 2006 before Denney, now 16, moved to Colorado with her mom and sister. But they missed Denney's father, who had stayed in Florida, and returned home when the separation got to be too much. With Barrett still without a partner, the two reunited in the summer of 2008.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Barrett and Caydee Denney
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesCaydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett continued their meteoric rise Saturday, winning the U.S. title just 18 months after they began skating together.

"I knew it was going to happen eventually, but I wasn't sure whether it was this cycle or next," Peterson said. "But I knew when they came together they were going to be something big."

Maybe even top-of-the-world big.

What makes Denney and Barrett so impressive already is their power and strength. Their program was jam-packed from the opening notes of their music, with not even a second to take it easy. He was clearly exhausted when they finished -- you try skating the length of the ice while carrying someone with one hand -- but she looked ready to go again, hopping up and down on the ice and sprinting a few steps.

They did side-by-side triple toe loop jumps and two double axels in sequence, and knocked them out as easily as a bunny hop. And man, can they fly. There are speedskaters who couldn't keep with these two, as they raced around the ice with grace and control.

Judy Blumberg, who won the first U.S. Olympic medal in ice dance with partner Michael Seibert, worked with Denney and Barrett on their "Sheherazade" program (she skated to it herself), and her influence showed. They had fine edge quality and their connection with each other could be seen way up in the rafters.

"The stage we're at right now, we're still growing as a team, but I know in the future we'd definitely like to be one of the top teams out there," Barrett said as Denney nodded. "We still have a lot of work to do, but we don't get nervous when we compete against other skaters. We feel like we can hold our own against them. With a little more work, I think we have a good possibility of being on the podium at worlds."

The Americans haven't won an Olympic medal since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard's bronze in 1988, and the only world medals in the last decade have come against watered-down, post-Olympic fields. But Denney and Barrett were ninth at their first world championships last year, and Peterson said there's no reason they can't improve on that in Vancouver.

Indeed, cracking the top five isn't out of the question. Their skating quality is right up there with the Chinese and Germans, they match them trick-for-trick and they produce the kind of excitement that draws fans to pairs skating in the first place.

"We still have more work we want to do," Barrett said. "We don't feel we're at the top of our game as we can be."

Evora -- who is Barrett's longtime girlfriend -- and Ladwig have room to grow, too. Their performance Saturday wasn't clean, but it delighted the audience, which was on its feet before the final notes of their music trailed off. Their triple twist was beautiful, and their carry lift was truly impressive, looking like something out of Cirque du Soleil.

She was sobbing so hard afterward she couldn't even speak. Ladwig wasn't quite as emotional, but he was no less moved.

"It has been a lifelong dream. I actually worked in Salt Lake as a volunteer, and all week I've been carrying my participation medal," he said, pulling the bronze-colored medal out of its purple case. "It says, 'Light the fire within.' I still have my original volunteer gear under the bed.

"Maybe it's time to break it out, so the wife can wear it in Vancouver."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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