U.S. pairs champions face uphill battle

To name the last American pairs figure skating team to win the world championships, you have to go back more than three decades to 1979, when Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner claimed the title in Vienna. Today, the top-five ranked teams in the world include two Chinese teams, two Russian teams and one German team. There is not a U.S. pair in sight.

Trying to answer the question, "Where have all the U.S. pairs teams gone?" is a delicate matter, but reigning U.S. pairs champions John Coughlin and Caitlin Yankowskas are in the perfect position to weigh in. In other countries, skaters are "often paired together at a young age," said Coughlin, who, along with Yankowskas, is representing the United States at the World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow this week. "This gives them unison and similarity in their movement that can only come from skating together since childhood." Of course, there's an emotional advantage to forming that early bond, too.

"They also don't give up [on each other]," Yankowskas said. "They stick with it, and when you pay your dues more in competition, you look better as a team."

She and Coughlin teamed up in 2007. Meanwhile, the 2010 U.S. champions, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, split in February after their third-place finish at this year's nationals. The 2008 and 2009 U.S. champions, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, parted ways in June 2010 after their hugely disappointing placement at that year's nationals. They had entered the competition as favorites but finished fifth and missed out on the Olympics. When disappointment strikes, American pairs often part ways instead of sticking it out and working together to improve their results. The difference might be cultural as well as emotional.

"Russia and China give more support to pair skaters," Coughlin said. "U.S. Figure Skating feels pressure to produce that media darling, and the ladies' champion is so marketable."

To be fair, the American public grants a certain celebrity status to its ladies' champions. Decades after their Olympic victories, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill remain well-known in the United States, while Kristi Yamaguchi is busier -- and more popular -- than ever. As Coughlin put it, "America loves its ladies."

Yankowskas perhaps proves her partner's point. As a young skater, Yankowskas idolized the ladies' stars. "I loved Michelle Kwan," she said. "I never really watched pairs too much. I thought, 'Skating with a boy -- ooh! They have cooties.'"

By 2007, the cooties disappeared and Yankowskas was passionate about pairs skating. Yankowskas, 20, grew up in Pelham, N.H. She started skating at 6, and by age 16, in 2007, she won the U.S. novice silver medal with Daniyel Cohen. Later that year, she had a tryout with esteemed pairs coach Dalilah Sappenfield, who suggested she skate with Coughlin.

Size, it turns out, matters a great deal in pairs skating and is a determining factor when it comes to matching skaters by height and weight. Coughlin said Russian and Chinese teams also use size differences to their advantage. "The girls are just very, very small," he said, "And there's a bigger age difference." On the first point he and Yankowskas seem well-matched: At 6-foot-2, he stands almost a foot taller. The pair trains in Colorado Springs, Colo., with Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra.

"Caitlin is your quintessential figure skater," said Coughlin, 25. "She has a very proper look on the ice. She looks almost European or Russian in her skating, and that's desirable."

With all of that said, the question still remains: Can the American pairs teams crack the foreign dominance? "We have the skaters to do it," Coughlin said, "but we have to make sure that the partners are matched better." This should start at the junior, intermediate and novice levels. "We need to think [strategically] down the road -- and not the instant gratification of a medal at the novice national level."

To earn their spot on the world team, Yankowskas and Coughlin delivered an inspired performance at this year's nationals. Coughlin's mother died last year, and they dedicated their free skate, set to Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," to her memory. "'Ave Maria' was a song that she wanted played at her service," Coughlin said. "The emotion we show is very genuine -- it's not acting." They'll perform this program for the final time in Moscow.

"Our main goal for this year's worlds -- and it's a lofty goal -- is to earn that third spot back," said Coughlin, referring to the number of pairs teams that the U.S. can send to worlds next year. This requires that they and the other American team, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, earn final placements that, combined, add up to 13 or fewer. (So, a seventh-place and ninth-place finish, which would add up to 16, wouldn't give the U.S. an extra pairs spot. But a seventh-place and fifth-place, totaling 12, would.) "We're pretty good friends with Amanda and Mark, and this is something we openly discuss," said Coughlin, referring to the teams' combined effort to place as high as possible. "We want to put pairs back on the map for the United States."

For Yankowskas and Coughlin, upsetting the Chinese dominance might be tough on their first trip to worlds, but a solid showing would be a significant step forward for U.S. pairs skating.

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