Laura Handy and Jonathon Hunt placed sixth in pairs at last year’s Nationals in Los Angeles. Not bad considering it was only their second year together and both are in their early twenties. Not as good as they had wished, however, after finishing sixth the previous winter in Boston. As a result the team broke up after the season. “There was some pressure on Jonathon after he took Paul’s place,” said Handy after a workout at the Blue Rink at the University of Delaware in Newark.
Paul Binnebose teamed up with Handy to win the silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix Finals and Junior World Championships in 1999. Their careers were soaring after defeating Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn to win a spot on the senior world team, which competed in Helsinki. Then Binnebose, training for Skate America, was nearly killed during a lift in practice six months later and Handy’s world took a tumble.
Enter Hunt, a large, powerful skater with a monster work ethic. “We call him ‘Moose’ at the rink because he’s so big and tough,” said Hunt’s past and present coach, Olympic bronze medalist Ron Ludington. Fellow UD skater Jeremy Allen knows Handy and Hunt well.
The 2001 US Junior Pairs champ (then with Debbie Blinder) is Hunt’s roommate and Handy’s new partner. Despite the seemingly awkward arrangement, Hunt understands the nuances of pairs skating. “Jeremy and I don’t have a problem with him skating with Laura,” Hunt said. “It’s part of the sport. Most skaters always think there’s a better partner for them out there somewhere. Unfortunately, you sometimes don’t know who your best partner was until your career is over.”
But don’t feel bad for Hunt; he’s landed on his skates. Pretty Jenny Don flew into town from Las Vegas (Well drove with her mother, actually) this past June and into Hunt well-muscled arms for lifts, twists and spirals. They endured some early injuries, most notably to Hunt’s right forearm, but bounced back to finish second at the Indy Challenge in August.
Hunt also helped to select the music for the programs while Don was completing her junior year in high school out West. “I basically listened to every classical CD I could get my hands on and then e-mailed Jenny my ideas,” Hunt said. “We skated better than I thought possible for our first time in front of a crowd,” said the eighteen-year-old Don. “Jon’s bigger than my last partner (Jered Guzman) and it took some getting used to the increased height on the lifts.”
The pair’s performance in Indianapolis was impressive. Don & Hunt upset Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash, who placed fifth last season in LA, and edged out Steve Hartsell and his new partner. Veterans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of Santa Monica, California won the competition. “I didn’t think it was possible to beat Orscher and Lucash so soon,” Hunt said after the competition. “But Jenny really had a lot of poise and the judging seemed to be very straight forward. I’m delighted with placing second.”
The pair again brought home silver medals at Junior Grand Prix events in Arizona and Italy before edging out Handy and Allen to strike gold at Easterns. Most recently Don and Hunt placed third at the Junior Grand Prix Finals in the Netherlands, one spot ahead of former US Junior Champions Tiffany and Johnnie Stiegler. Hunt also seems happy to have Don as his partner. “Our personalities are very compatible,” Hunt said. “It’s too early think of placings just yet but definitely so far so good. Jenny’s really a high energy kid.”
Energy is certainly what Don needs in abundance. In addition to skating with Hunt and attending high school she also competes as a singles skater. In September she flew to Yugoslavia via Paris for a singles competition and the next week skated with Hunt ten time zones away in a junior grand prix event in Arizona. In between the couple managed to train together one day in Delaware. “While Jenny was in Europe I visited my family in Houston,” Hunt explained. “I just tried to keep in shape at a local rink there until she got back.”
Don will have her fitness put to the test later this month in Dallas where she also plans to compete as a singles skater at Nationals. Don may do double duty in Czech Republic in late February at the Junior World Championships. An invite to the pairs portion of the event is almost a certainty while Don’s fate as a singles competitor should be settled in Dallas. Don’s impending trip to Junior Worlds will mark her fourth visit to Europe this season.
Getting in shape was what Handy and Allen had on their minds one afternoon in late July. “I just asked Laura if she wanted to do a couple death spirals at the end of a session,” Allen said. “It was just to stay in shape. After about ten minutes, however, she landed a throw triple Salchow.” “I didn’t want to go through a whole season without competing so we just started on a trial basis,” emphasized Handy, who didn’t skate competitively in 2000 because of the injury to Binnebose. “We get our work done but a big part of it is to have fun. Something that makes our partnership so low stress is we were friends for a long time before we started skating together. I look at some of the younger teams fighting through things and it remains me of my situation several years ago.”
Handy and Allen qualified for Nationals by placing second at the Eastern Sectional Championships in Ashton, Pennsylvania. Barring injury, three-time US silver medalists Tiffany and Philip Dulebohn seem a lock to qualify for the World Championships in Washington DC, leaving Handy and Allen scrambling to secure one of the other two berths. “Laura’s world class,” Ludington said. “She and Jeremy could be a strong team. With three slots for US pairs on the world team this year, anything could happen.”
A strong artistic mark is one thing that Handy and Allen have to make happen in order for them to challenge for a spot on the podium at Nationals in Dallas. The couple has many similarities, which is usually good but share one that’s not: closeness in height. Laura is five-foot-five, unusually tall by pairs standards, while Jeremy is just a shade over five-nine. “My last partner was four-eleven so working with Laura is a little different in that respect,” Allen said. “Where I see it most is setting her down. I still hold her right at the hip bones but the difference is I have to catch her higher up in the air so her skates don’t hit the ice too hard.”
“We are trying to really show artistic programs with outstanding unison,” Handy said. “We’ve gotten some positive feedback from people whose opinions we respect about how it looks like we’ve been together much longer than we actually have.”
The pair’s short program will be selections from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. For the long program, they plan skate to “Piano Concerto No. 2” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. “I like to think of our short program as a bit of a dark comedy rather us just playing the part of the lead characters in the movie,” Allen explained. “It is a little like Elena and Anton’s Chaplin routine in that we use body language early to set the mood of the program.” “Still it is a short program and you don’t have much time to get all the elements in,” added Handy. “The long program is definitely more conservative. We’re working hard to carry good speed throughout it.”
Working hard means training three sessions per day, six days a week in between coaching several students. Usually one session is devoted to elements; one to unison and the final practice of the day is to work on sticking points. While Ludington is their coach, the pair often works alone. “The more experienced you are the more confidence you have in your own decisions,” said Handy, who hopes to compete with Allen for the first time at Easterns in Ashton, Pennsylvania. “And coach Ludington treats us a little differently than some of the younger kids,” she said. “Where as in the past he might have just yelled at us, now he will usually take us aside and explain what we are doing wrong.” Or tell them along with Don and Hunt what they are doing right while getting ready to make their mark at Nationals.