GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Six months ago, Mary Beth Marley of Downers Grove had never done a throw jump or a pairs lift. Now she and Algonquin's Rockne Brubaker, are sitting in third place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Saturday these two skaters from the suburbs have a chance to showcase their potential even more when the Pairs Free Skate competition gets under way here.
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It's a testament to the talent of Brubaker, a national champion at the junior and senior levels with previous partners, and Marley's potential.
But it's also indicative of the troubled state of pairs skating in the U.S., which hasn't produced a team that can contend internationally for more than a decade.
"I think they show wonderful potential," said John Nicks, who coached Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner to the 1979 world title, the last by an American pair, and now works with Marley and Brubaker. "The future is great for them in a period where American pairs seems not too defined."
Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin won the short program with a steamy, seductive tango that made the arena feel like a dimly-lit, smoke-filled Argentine bar. Their throw triple salchow was huge, and would measure up to any of the world's top couples. Their score of 64.30 points, however, would not, falling several points short of what the Germans did a day earlier at the European championships.
Olympians Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were second (62.87) while defending national champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett finished fourth after she fell on their side-by-side triple toe loops.
For all of the American might in singles -- 14 Olympic gold medals and 49 world titles -- success always has been much harder to come by in pairs. No U.S. team has ever won Olympic gold, and Karol and Peter Kennedy are the only Americans besides Babilonia and Gardner to win worlds. The Americans haven't been on the Olympic podium since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard won bronze in 1988, and the only world medal in the last 12 years was Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman's bronze in 2002 -- against a watered-down, post-Olympic field.
Granted, the U.S. still is looking for its first world or Olympic title in ice dance, too. But the Americans have become a force in the discipline where they were once irrelevant, winning silver medals at the last two Olympics and placing a team on the podium at five of the last six world championships.
The pairs, meanwhile, haven't even qualified a team at the last three Grand Prix finals.
"The U.S. is looking for a team to step up and be competitive in the world," Brubaker said. "The door's wide open."
There are myriad reasons for the pairs woes.
Part of it is logistical. Unlike in Europe or China, where training is often centralized, potential partners sometimes live on opposite sides of the country with neither easily able to move. Marley, for example, was training in the Chicago suburbs when she was paired with the Southern California-based Brubaker, whose family is from Algonquin.
Part is physiological. Female pairs skaters need to be tiny, and growing just an inch or two can doom promising partnerships.
And part is perception. Although pairs skaters are prized in the traditional powerhouses of China and Russia, the joke in the U.S. has always been that those who can't do singles do pairs.
"I think it's an honor for a skater to be told they've been identified as a potential pairs skater because it means they have special attributes," said Mitch Moyer, now U.S. Figure Skating's senior director of high performance after a long career as a pairs coach. "That's where I think the Russians and Chinese have it over us, that mentality. In China, if you said, 'You'd be good pairs skater,' that's fabulous. It'd be an honor.
"In America, we have a lot of good singles skaters and a lot of them aspire to be great singles skaters," Moyer said. "But they also could be great pairs skaters, as well."
The biggest hurdle, however, is personal. It takes years to develop the kind of unison, chemistry and cohesiveness that make pairs so spectacular to watch.
"We've got to get the right people together -- and keep them together long enough to be on the podium," Moyer said.
With his athleticism, expressiveness and rugged good looks, Brubaker has all the makings of a breakthrough pairs skater -- except for the right partner. He and Keauna McLaughlin were junior world champions in 2007 and, later that year, qualified for the senior Grand Prix final. They won the U.S. titles in 2008 and 2009, and seemed a lock for last year's Vancouver Olympics.
But they had a spectacular meltdown at last year's nationals and finished fifth. Five months later, McLaughlin announced she was quitting skating. Brubaker's previous partner, Mariel Miller, quit after they won the 2005 U.S. junior title.
"Sometimes, when you want to achieve a goal it doesn't always work out," Brubaker said. "Things didn't go my way. But it doesn't mean I'm going to give up."
Marley had never seriously considered doing pairs -- she used to joke the only way she'd do it was if she could skate with Brubaker -- but she and her coach agreed to a tryout when Moyer proposed the idea. Right away, Brubaker and Nicks knew she was a perfect fit.
Marley's jumps were already strong from doing singles (she finished fifth in juniors Wednesday night), and she has the fearlessness essential for female pairs skaters. Most important, she acts -- and skates -- far beyond her 15 years. They got out of unison on their side-by-side spins and she had to put a hand on his shoulder on the landing of their triple twist, minor mistakes and hardly a surprise for someone so new to pairs.
But they've got the speed and power down, effortlessly flying across the ice.
"What she's done in such a short amount of time is pretty remarkable," Brubaker said. "Next year, after a full year of skating together, that's when we feel we'll really have an opportunity to impress."
To realize their potential, however, Marley and Brubaker need time to develop and the patience to weather the arguments and annoyances inevitable when two people spend eight hours a day, every day, together.
"We'd like to make a mark in Sochi," Moyer said. "Obviously we'd like to be on the podium, but it's a long-term project. I wouldn't put a date on it. It took a long time for the dancers, for us to turn that around. I think we have great coaches in our country, and we have talent. It's getting them together and then staying together."