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So far so good for McLaughlin, Brubaker and 'Mr. Nicks'

September 11, 2009 |  4:23 pm

Skating Reporting from Chicago -- An 11th-place finish at the World Figure Skating Championships last March led two-time U.S. pair champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker to switch coaches, taking them from Dalilah Sappenfield's guidance in Colorado Springs, Colo., to Aliso Viejo to work with John Nicks.

That's Mr. Nicks to them ... and everyone else who knows the 80-year-old Englishman whose roster of world and Olympic medalists includes Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand and reigning Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen.

"There's only one person who calls him John, and that's Sarah Kawahara," McLaughlin said of the renowned figure skating choreographer. "Pretty much everyone calls him Mr. Nicks. Even people his own age. It's just a sense of respect that we all have for him. We have so much faith in him. We trust him. When he tells us to go do something we don't ask questions, we just go do it because somehow we know he has a big plan and he has a picture and he's guiding us.

"When I first heard 'John,' I was like, 'Who's that again?' "

McLaughlin, who will be 16 in two weeks, said the coaching change was difficult because she moved to Orange County without her family while she and Brubaker decided whether Nicks was the right coach for them. Her mother, father, sister and grandmother have since found a place in Laguna Niguel and have joined her, so she feels better about the whole situation.

"Slowly, every day has gotten a little bit more comfortable and a little easier," she said today at the U.S. Olympic media summit. "I still don't feel at home yet, but we just got a house. I really feel thankful that they're supporting me. I couldn't do it without them."

McLaughlin and Brubaker are a spirited and eye-catching pair, and they've progressed remarkably fast since they teamed up three years ago. But both felt they could do even better and so made the move to Southern California in June. Nicks had offered to help them find a coach but instead ended up taking them on himself.

"He really respected us as a team and thought we had a lot going as a team and he wanted to help us in any way possible to have the best situation," Brubaker said. "We asked him about the idea of possibly working with him.... At first we had a 30-day trial. He said, 'You may not like it here and I don't want you to be stuck in a situation that you're not happy with.'  I think he's been pretty excited about it."

Not that it always goes smoothly. "I think that we drive him crazy sometimes," Brubaker said. "He tells us we're going to be the death of him. But we have a lot of fun. He makes us laugh."

Said McLaughlin: "Except we don't know if he 's joking or if he's serious so we're kind of afraid to laugh."

Brubaker solved that problem. "We don't really laugh until he laughs," Brubaker said.

More from the Olympic summit Saturday, when Cohen will be featured on a teleconference call and the event wraps up.

-- Helene Elliott

Photo: Rockne Brubaker, left, and Keauna McLaughlin perform their short program routine at the ISU World Figure Skating championships in Los Angeles on March 24, 2009. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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