The Indy Challenge:
Senior and Junior Pairs’ Short Programs

By Lynn Rutherford

The annual Indy Challenge, held at Indianapolis’ World Skating Academy August 12 – 14, is an important event for junior and senior pair teams seeking to debut new programs, gain feedback from judges and win international assignments. This year’s event also illustrated how recent adjustments to the ISU’s new judging system ("NJS") are dictating the composition of pair programs.

"This new system, and especially the new technical bulletin (#139), really changes things. Things are getting complex. Take the death spiral, for example. If teams do two full turns all the way around, they can get a Level 2. If you do a trick in the middle, you get a Level 3, and if you sneeze at just the right time, you get a level 4," joked veteran coach Ron Luddington.

Others agreed.

"Under NJS, pairs are doing more difficult things, which is good. It’s more interesting; before, it was getting boring. But the actual skating is more difficult to do, so the pairs are not as ready for the start of this season as they were for the last," said Kerry Leitch.

Technical specialists and assistant specialists at the event included former U.S. pair champion Ken Shelley and former U.S. and World pair champion Randy Gardner. Two extra judges were added to the panels to help deliver critiques to the skaters at the end of the events.

In a bit of a surprise, 2005 U.S. junior pair champions Mariel Miller & Rockne Brubaker, who train in Colorado Springs under Dalilah Sappenfield, won the senior pairs’ short program with 52.72 points, edging out Shantel Rae Jordan & Jeremy Barrett by just .18 points.

Skating to "Tosca," choreographed by Damon Allen, Miller & Brubaker had a fine forward inside death spiral (FIDS); good positions in their lift; a clean throw triple loop; and a high double twist, completed in a lateral position. On the debit side, Miller fell on a triple Salchow and Brubaker stumbled a bit in the couple’s intricate pair spin.

"It felt pretty good; this is only our second senior competition. (They also skated at the recent Broadmoor Open.) It wasn’t our best performance, because I messed up on the triple Salchow. I either rushed it or was nervous," said Miller.

"We didn’t expect first place at all. We were sure Mark (Ladwig) and Amanda (Evora) would beat us. We’re pretty excited; the reviewers said they liked a lot of our components. They did offer pointers on our triple twist, side-by-side jumps and footwork. Our levels were a little lower than we’d like, so we will work on them at home."

Miller & Brubaker are scheduled to compete at the upcoming JGP Bratislava.

2004 U.S. junior pair champions Jordan & Barrett were second with 52.54 points. Performing to "Stomp," choreographed by former Canadian pair champion Christine ("Tuffy") Hough, the couple executed a rare throw triple Lutz, a big double twist, side-by-side triple Salchows, and a lift with three changes of position and a "drop out" exit. Their weakest elements were the spins: Barrett ended his individual spin several rotations too early, and although the pair spin was fast, the positions were not well defined. The couple also lost unison in their footwork sequences.

"It was a good skate. We had a little trouble on the footwork, but we’re happy," said the 20 year-old Barrett.

"We do (the throw triple Lutz) everyday in practice, so it felt good to do it here," added the 12 year-old Jordan.

The team’s coach, Kerry Leitch, said the NJS does not assign enough value to the throw triple Lutz.

"I don’t know of any other team who ever did a throw triple Lutz. Unfortunately, under the NJS it gets the same point value as a throw triple loop or flip. That’s because they never thought a pair team would do it. It makes no sense; they will have to clarify it at some point," said Leitch, who trains the pair at the J.P. Igloo in Ellenton, Florida.

The couple is not eligible for either Junior Grand Prix or Senior Grand Prix events, due to age restrictions. They have a local competition in Florida this September and will do a few simulations before competing at their sectional qualifying competition.

Tiffany Vise & Derek Trent took third place with 51.98 points. Skating to ballroom-style music from the soundtrack of "Shall We Dance," the "mirror" couple -- she jumps and spins to the left, and he to the right -- had a good double twist and throw triple loop, although she fell on the triple toe loop. Their two most unique moves were a "shoot-the-duck" type position in the FIDS, and a difficult lift with a "swing through" entrance (Trent swung Vise through his legs to a an overhead position), two changes of position in the air and a flip out.

In May, the couple moved from Colorado Springs, where they were taught by 1981 World pair champion Irina Vorobieva, to Scottsdale to train under former Canadian pair champion Doug Ladret.

"The jumps were bad, obviously, but it’s the first time we’ve really skated the program full out, choreography-wise," said Vise. (She and Trent had already competed at the Broadmoor and Liberty Opens.)

"If the timing is right, our lift actually feels easy. With the new system, (the entry) is a feature that makes us look different. It should get a Level 3 or 4."

Fourth with 47.44 points were Amanda Evora & Mark Ladwig, who placed fifth at the 2005 U.S. championships. The talented team had a disappointing performance to their difficult "Hotel California" short program, choreographed by Christine Hough.

The couple opened with a lovely pair spin and some creative steps, than did spread eagles into a throw triple loop, with Evora putting a hand down on the landing. Both skaters stepped out of their triple Salchows. Their lift was difficult, with a change of hands and several changes of position, but their side-by-side spins were a near disaster, when they skated too close to each other. To top things off, he slid and nearly fell on the closing death spiral. However, they had by far the most interesting choreography and difficult transitions in the competition.

"They made silly mistakes on the solo spins and death spiral. It’s early; with the new rules, pairs really need to grind out these programs a few more times," said their coach, Kerry Leitch.

The new team of Tiffany Scott & Rusty Fein was fifth with 46.58 points. Skating to "Cries from Beirut," choreographed by 2002 Olympic dance champion Gwendal Peizerat, the couple landed a throw triple loop but missed their triple toe loops, with Scott falling and Fein skidding on the entry and missing the jump entirely.

"It was a bit frustrating. I’m fairly comfortable with the jumps," said Fein, a former singles’ competitor who began pair skating with Scott – the 2003 U.S. pair champion with previous partner Philip Dulebohn -- at the end of February. "This is only our second competition; Liberty (in July) was our first. It’s exciting and overwhelming at the same time."

"Most of our lifts and things are a bit more basic (than those of the other couples). We’re still developing the skills. We’re going to keep it basic until we’re more secure," added Scott.

The couple’s coach, Ron Luddington, agreed.

"Rusty was just a preliminary pair skater four months ago, so we have to be careful not to overload him with too many technically difficult elements. The layout of their programs is fine; our biggest problem is learning the difficult lifts and levels without anyone getting injured," he said.

Scott called traveling to Lyon, France to work with Peizerat on choreography "a very exciting experience. There was a lot of speculation about us; as a new team, what could we do? So I have to really commend Gwendal on this program. It’s still developing and I’m sure it will grow over time."

Fein has just two more classes to go before he earns his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in economics and history. Scott was married to Brian Pryor, a medical student, on May 1st.

"We’re taking things one competition at a time, one step at a time. It’s tough to see how things will develop. Hopefully we will be twice as good at Nationals as we were here," said Scott.

Brooke Castile & Ben Okoleski, the 2004 U.S. junior silver medallists, were sixth with 45.98 points. The couple had good height on their double twist and their one-arm lift had a lovely position and nice flip out, but Okoleski fell on a triple Salchow and Castile took a tumble landing the throw triple loop.

Chloe Katz & Joseph Lynch placed seventh with 43.14 points. They opened their program with a good throw triple Salchow, but slipped and failed to complete the double twist and had big problems on side-by-side double Axels.

Colette Appel & Lee Harris were eighth with 42.92 points. MeeRan Trombly & Nathan Hess placed ninth with 36.70 points, and Katie Beriau & Joseph Gazzola were tenth with 34.52 points.

Junior Pairs’ Short Program

As expected, Julia Vlassov & Drew Meekins, the reigning U.S. junior silver medallists, won the Indy Challenge pairs’ short program competition with 48.46 points. Skating to "Picante" by Vanessa Mae, they landed an excellent throw triple loop that garnered grades of execution (GOE's) of + 1 and + 2 from the judges -- by far the best throw jump of the event. Their lift had three changes of position, they completed a strong double twist in the lateral position, and their double Lutzes were done cleanly and in unison.

"We’ve been working with our choreographer (Laura Amelina) on the artistic quality of our programs, doing a lot of run-throughs without the elements," said the 14 year-old Vlassov. "Here, we just wanted to skate clean and not focus on the levels of the elements."

"Most of our elements are Level 3; our death spiral is a Level 2," added the 20 year-old Meekins. "We competed at Skate Detroit and the caller there said ‘keep your lift at a Level 3, and get the quality.’ It’s a lot harder to go from a Level 3 to a Level 4; there are a lot of things you need to do to get to a Level 4. It’s better to do a Level 3 with a higher grade of execution."

"I like the new system," said their coach, Alexander Vlassov (Julia’s father), the 1976 Worlds bronze and 1977 World silver medallist in pairs with Irina Vorobieva. "But it is difficult because it is not finished. I expect next year it will be completed. Right now there is still confusion between the callers, judges and coaches."

At the 2005 World Junior Championships in Kitchener, Vlassov & Meekins placed ninth. This is the final year the team will be age-eligible for JGP circuit. They are scheduled for JGP Andorra.

The elegant team of Bianca Butler & Joseph Jacobson, who is coached by three-time U.S. champions Jenni Meno & Todd Sand, were second with 46.44 points. Skating to "The Nutcracker," they showed lovely extension and balletic lines honed in the five years they have skated together. They had an excellent back inside death spiral (BIDS) with a change in arm position, as well as a difficult and musical circular step sequence, but he fell out of his double Lutz.

"We have been training with Jenni and Todd for a year this September. We’re starting to take ballet classes together, although we have both studied ballet a lot on our own," said the 15 year-old Butler.

"Jenni and Todd do our choreography. We’re pretty happy with our skate here. We tried to do everything at a high level, especially our death spiral and footwork."

Butler and her partner, the 18 year-old Jacobson, plan to train at Lake Arrowhead over the next several weeks to prepare for the higher altitude of their JGP in Andorra.

The new team of Bridget Namiotka & John Coughlin took third place with 45.70 points. The couple, who have been training for five months together under Ron Luddington at University of Delaware, skated to a disco version of "Firebird." They had the strongest, highest double twist of the event, good double Lutzes and fine side-by-side spins, as well as a nice one-arm lift with three changes of position. Their weakest element was a rather small throw double loop.

"We’ve spent a lot of time working on the twist. It sure wasn’t that high when we started off," said the 19 year-old Coughlin, who stands 6’2". "We skated well. We’re happy with our progress."

"He’s a strong boy and he’s had a lot of pairs’ experience. She’s one of the skaters we’ve been bringing up and let me tell you, she’s a real comer," said Luddington.

Aaryn Smith & Will Chitwood were fourth with 43.08 points. Smith hit a nice position in their one-arm overhead, but she put a hand down on the throw triple loop, and both skaters flailed around on their double Lutzes. However, their final two elements – a "drag spiral" entered into from a split position and pair spin including Smith in a fully extended vertical split, ala Natalia Mishketuniok – were unique and well done.

Chelsea Meador & Alex Meritt came fifth with 42.47 points. Skating to Beethoven #5, the blonde couple had a clean throw double loop, good unison on their double Lutzes, and a nice one-arm lift, as well as good unison throughout their step sequences. Overall, the program was solid, if lacking excitement.

Lilly Pixley & John Salway placed sixth with 42.43 points. They had a good speed on their double twist, a solid throw double loop and a good circular step sequence.

Kendra Moyle & Andy Seitz, who were seventh with 41.49 points, had a nice double twist and BIDS, but she fell out of the throw triple loop and he fell on the double Lutz.

"I’m a little disappointed with my fall," said the 19 year-old Seitz, who has skated with the 14 year-old Moyle for six months. "Everything else was pretty strong. We were hoping to get an international assignment."

Prior to teaming with Moyle, Seitz skated with his sister, Lindsey, for years.

"It’s a change not being out there with my sister but it’s still pairs skating. My new partner is great," he said.

Katie Boxwell & Danny Curzon were eighth with 40.41 points. Their performance was solid, except for bad lack of unison on their side-by-side spins. Unfortunately, they lacked the speed and difficulty of the top couples. (Boxwell won the 2002 U.S. novice pair title with her former partner, the late Will Sears.)

In ninth place were Molly Aaron & Taylor Toth with 40.25 points. Coached by Doug Ladret, the couple skated with good speed and had a clean throw double loop, but their elements were not as difficult as those of some of the other teams. Nevertheless, they have been assigned to the JGP Bratislava.

Toth’s difficulty finding a suitable living situation has been the topic of several articles in The Arizona Republic. The 16 year-old -- who moved to Scottsdale, Arizona from his home town in Pennsylvania to skate with Aaron -- has struggled to find a family to board with, and he feared having to abandon his partnership and return home. Press coverage, however, has changed all that.

"The response from the people in Scottsdale has been incredible. The newspaper actually forgot to put contact information in the first article, so they ran another article the next day, which was even more publicity," said the upbeat Toth.

"Now, I have some great people who have offered to board me, and I just have to narrow it down to where I think I would best fit in. I don’t drive yet, so it needs to be a place close to my school and to the rink. I’ve narrowed it down to five possibilities, and I went with a friend and her mother to visit all of them.

"I have lots of options. My dad is coming out next week to visit with the people, too, and then we’ll make a decision," said Toth, who added it was his grandmother’s idea to contact the newspaper.

"At first we thought we would place a personal ad, but the newspaper wouldn’t do it, because I’m only 16. But we told them our story and a couple of months later, they called back and said they’d like to do a story on me. It was the best thing that could have happened."

Christopher Pottenger & Kaela Pflumm were tenth with 37.64 points. The couple, who have only skated together for a month and a half, had a rather weak double twist and a fall on their throw triple loop, and he put hand down on double Lutz. They had a good BIDS with Pottenger, especially, in excellent position.

"I moved to Delaware in June to tryout with Kaela. A lot of friends and coaches recommended her. We’ve been doing well, learning the elements and tricks at a fast rate. I like Delaware a lot; it’s a wonderful training environment. There are a lot of older skaters there, so it’s competitive and a positive work environment," said Pottenger, who won the 2003 U.S. novice title with Sydney Schmidt. Last season, the couple qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, but Schmidt decided to end the partnership.

"My former partner wanted to get more involved in her school activities and join student government, so she ended her skating career," explained Pottenger. He and Pflumm are coached by Tracy Poletis, Jeremy Allen and Ron Luddington.

In 11th place were Lisa Moore & Justin Gaumond with 33.68 points. The couple had a fine double twist, with Moore’s arms in an overhead position, but Moore fell on their throw double loop and both failed on the double Lutz.

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