Yankowskas and Coughlin win U.S. title with stirring tribute

Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin won the pairs title at the 2011 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

In a moving tribute to his mother Stacy, twenty-five-year-old John Coughlin and his twenty-year-old partner Caitlin Yankowskas captured the 2011 US Pairs title. Coughlin’s mother, a huge inspiration in his skating career, passed away last February, and the duo decided to honor her with their Ave Maria freeskate this season.

“It’s been a wild year, and I didn’t really know what to think at first,” Coughlin said of the performance. “I was trying to find (our coaches) right away, and I looked for my father in the audience. I kind of grabbed Caitlin and spun her around and soaked it all in. This is something that we will remember forever, and I told myself no matter what we did today competitively, to get out on the ice and compete that program was going to be a happy moment for me. To think that it went the way that it did is unreal at this point.”

Within the program, Yankowskas urges Coughlin to share the story of his grief, guiding him on a path to healing. Dressed like an angel, the flaxen-haired Yankowskas played the part with honesty and integrity, allowing her partner to reveal his pain in a safe environment. In a chill inducing moment, Yankowskas leaned in to Coughlin, who is doubled over in pain, and gently caressed his face to comfort him.

“When we start the program, he is telling me his story of what happened to his mom,” Yankowskas revealed. “Throughout the program, I am just encouraging him to tell me, and that was very difficult to do at first. (When we would train), we would press play at first and we would get maybe three seconds in and we would have to stop. It was emotionally really difficult, but as the months went on, it became easier. It’s a lot easier to run the program thinking of the choreography that way. I would say that is the hardest part of our program.”

Coughlin continued, “I remember something that (coach) Dalilah (Sappenfield) said to me a few weeks ago. She told me that Caitlin was creating a safe place for me out there so I could tell my story, and that she was protecting me so that I could do just that. It definitely felt that way out there today. I was completely caught up in what I was doing, and I just had faith that she was doing what she needed to do.”

Though the true story of the program was the sheer gravity of the raw emotion expressed by both skaters, it must also be noted that the elements were also of high quality. From the opening double Axels, it was clear that the new champions would accept nothing less than a gold medal. The only error in the program was a rough landing on the throw triple loop. Yankowskas and Coughlin earned a personal best competition score of 188.45 points.

“It was a magical experience out there,” Yankowskas said. “If I could go out there and do it again, I would.”

To which Coughlin quipped, “After we have some rest and hydrate.”

For the second consecutive season, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig captured the silver medals, and nearly earned the title with an inspired performance to music from Puccini’s Turandot.

“I was less nervous than I thought I was going to be out there,” Evora confessed. “It was kind of a nice experience to be able to be out there and be able to be organized with all the things going around.”

Skating with confidence and their usual heart-on-a-sleeve style, Evora and Ladwig looked every bit a team that deserves to compete at the ISU Championships.

“It was a very nerve racking experience getting back on the nationals horse,” Ladwig admitted. “I always consider this my skating family, so I always feel extra pressure. I’ve never been able to shake that. I thought that the performance tonight was very solid. We hit a lot of our features, and that was one of the things that Amanda and I wanted to do – to stay frosty out there and go from one element to the next.”

The 2010 Olympians scored 185.22 points, a new personal best, and are expected to be named to the World Championships Team.

Last year’s champions, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett moved up from fourth place to win the bronze medals with a strong performance of their Rhapsody in Blue program.

“I think when we’re skating well and we get into the program and start enjoying it, the crowd can get into,” Barrett explained. “I think the crowd was definitely in to it today.”

Other than a mistake on a double Axel-double Axel sequence, the two-time world team members were technically sound, but they did not carry the emotion or connection that the gold and silver medalists showcased.

“Our main goal was to come out there today and to fight,” Denney explained. “I felt like we were strong, and that was our main goal.”

Barrett added, “It’s disappointing for us (to not earn a spot on the World Championships Team),  but we’re happy to go to Four Continents and represent the USA.”

With 175.49 points, Denney and Barrett were far below their personal best from last season, but will likely be invited to compete at next month’s Four Continents Championships.

Falling to fourth place was the new team of Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker, who skated an entertaining number to music from The Adams Family. In just a few short months of training together, the duo seemed poised to make an impact in international competitions soon.

“Just us being here and skating the programs that we did, I would say is pretty unrealistic,” Brubaker said. “Fortunately enough, I had experience but there are very few people, if any, that probably could have done what Mary Beth has done this year or in these last few months.”

“That’s actually one of the best programs we’ve ever done,” Marley added.

Marley and Brubaker demonstrated strong singles elements, but have room to improve in the pairs elements. With 163.55 points, the California-trained team turned more than a few heads this season.

Grand Prix competitors Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skated an ambitious program to music from the film Avatar, attempting a throw triple Axel and performed awe-inspiring lifts. Their total of 151.92 points propelled them to a fifth place finish, the best of their career.

Finishing in sixth place was Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin, the newly engaged tandem who train in Scottsdale, Ariz. Meanwhile Lindsay Davis and Themistocles Leftheris remained in seventh place. Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff moved up to finished in eighth place.

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