SAN JOSE, Calif. - Old partner, new partner, it hardly seems to matter.
When Rockne Brubaker skates, he ends up on top.
The former U.S. champion and his new partner, Mary Beth Marley, won the short program Thursday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. They already 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.
American pairs has been like a high-speed merry-go-round the last few years, with the top couples splitting up in dizzying fashion. Brubaker won the 2008 and 2009 U.S. titles with Keauna McLaughlin, but they parted ways after failing to make the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. He also won a junior title with Mariel Miller.
He only started skating with Marley last year, and she had no pairs experience whatsoever. But Brubaker has a gift for pairs skating, and it was evident Thursday.
Their "Singing in the Rain" program was delightfully peppy. But the real show began when they started doing their tricks.
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.
It was a performance that would have been tough 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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