SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When Rockne Brubaker and his last pairs partner split up, he wasn't sure he wanted to keep skating.
Nights like this are why the 25-year-old figure skater from Algonquin did.
Brubaker, who won four titles with his two previous partners, is back at the top again, winning the short program Thursday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with current partner Mary Beth Marley. The duo look like seasoned veterans in their second season together, their score of 65.80 points more than four points better than last year's runners-up, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig.
Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, who won the last two U.S. titles with different partners, were third going into Saturday's free skate.
"It's very difficult to start over," Brubaker said. "You look at some of teams that have been really successful and longevity is a key. The last (Olympic) trials and with what happened, it was a tough experience. I did contemplate for a time whether I should continue because the thought of starting over wasn't fun. It's a testament that when you want something and you've worked really hard for it, good things come your way."
Most of the top U.S. pairs have played a dizzying game of musical chairs in recent years, splitting up right when they seemed to be reaching their peak. Brubaker and previous partner Keauna McLaughlin seemed to have the makings of a team that could end the American medal drought in pairs, claiming the U.S. and junior world titles in 2007 and winning back-to-back senior titles as seniors in 2008 and 2009.
But their season in 2010 was so dismal they didn't even make the Vancouver Olympics. A few months later, McLaughlin announced that she was done skating, leaving Brubaker to start over.
Marley had no pairs experience before she and Brubaker, who also won a U.S. junior title with Mariel Miller, started skating together. But the two meshed quickly, and their chemistry improves with every program.
They drew the audience in with their delightfully peppy "Singing in the Rain" program, but it was their tricks that stole the show.
Their triple twist was huge, big enough to match the world's top teams. Their side-by-side triple toe loops looked effortless, they had such great speed they looked as if they were sprinting and she should get some frequent flier mileage for the distance she got on their throw triple lutz. The landing was a little shaky, but she managed to save it, flashing a big smile.
But it was their lift that was the class of the program. Her positions weren't as intricate as those done by some of the other couples, but Brubaker carried her across the ice with a speed and smoothness that was unmatched.
"I think Mary Beth and I are on the right track. We have a lot of growing to do, but think tonight, I haven't felt that good on the ice in a couple of years," Brubaker said. "It's in that moment you realize why you came back and why you stuck it out."
Marley and Brubaker's performance would have been tough for anyone to beat, and no one came close. Evora and Ladwig, the model of stability after almost 10 years together, were done in by her fall on their side-by-side triple toes. Denney almost did a belly-flop on a throw triple flip, a big no-no.
The error spoiled what had been an impressive nationals debut for Denney and Coughlin, who teamed up with a speed that would make even Kim Kardashian raise an eyebrow.
The U.S. had big hopes for Denney and her former partner, Jeremy Barrett, after they finished ninth at the 2009 world championships, less than nine months after they began skating together. They won the U.S. title the next year, and improved to seventh at worlds after finishing 13th at the Vancouver Olympics.
But Denney and Barrett struggled last season. After they finished third at nationals, Barrett announced his retirement. With no partner, Denney moved with her family from Florida to Colorado Springs, Colo., where her younger sister was training.
Where Coughlin was training, too.
Coughlin and his longtime partner, Caitlin Yankowskas, had been the feel-good story at last year's nationals, winning their first U.S. title with an emotional "Ave Maria" in tribute to Coughlin's mother, who had passed away 11 months earlier. They went on to finish sixth at worlds, the best finish by an American pair in a non-Olympic year since 1997, and best at any worlds since 2006.
Six days later, Yankowskas and Coughlin split up.
Thirteen days after that, Denney and Coughlin announced their partnership.
"Some things you can't plan for," Coughlin said. "I'm definitely blessed to be skating and here with Caydee."
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