It was a long trip for an apparently insignificant competition, but one that pairs figure skaters Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker hoped might pay a big dividend.
Marley and Brubaker went to the GAM Nestle Nesquik Cup in Torun, Poland, early last month. It was not only their first international competition but also their first competition period, although calling it that was a bit of an exaggeration.
They would compete in Torun against only one opponent, a very weak Bulgarian team whom the U.S. pair beat by 63 points.
And that was the easy part.
Marley, 15, skated in Poland with a 103-degree fever and came back to her Southern California training base still washed out by the illness, which didn't bode well with the U.S. Championships just three weeks away in North Carolina.
But the first-year pair from suburban Chicago -- she is from Downers Grove, he from Algonquin -- also brought back a score good enough to qualify for participation in major international competitions.
Which is a good thing, because they will suddenly find themselves at such a meet next week.
Marley and Brubaker learned Friday that they were going to the Four Continents Championship in Taipei as replacements for Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett after Barrett needed 42 stitches in his right calf for a cut made by Denney's skate blade.
"Things work out for a reason," Brubaker said when I reached him by phone Saturday afternoon. "I feel bad for Caydee and Jeremy but I'm happy we're going."
After finishing fourth at nationals, Marley and Brubaker thought they might get one of the three U.S. places at Four Continents, especially because the top two teams would be returning to Asia a month later for the World Championships in Tokyo.
But the top three teams all decided to go to Taipei, so Marley and Brubaker settled for the satisfaction of knowing how far they had come since she had a tryout with him last August.
"One of the things Mr. Nicks [their coach, John Nicks] said afterward is this is really going to set you up well for next year," Brubaker said. "That is what we kind of came to do -- get ourselves out there, let people know we're here. Next year, our goals will be a little bit different."
Before U.S. Figure Skating named its Four Continents team, I had asked Brubaker what going to that event would mean.
"It would be a nice bonus," he said, "a way to put our faces on the [international] scene. Sometimes when people see you for the first they don't know how to judge you."
Brubaker, 24, finished second at Four Continents last year with Keauna McLaughlin, who decided soon after to retire from competitive skating. They had failed to make the 2010 Olympic team after staggering into fifth place at last year's nationals.
Brubaker, a two-time U.S. champion with McLaughlin, was prepared to take a year off until USFS high performance director Mitch Moyer suggested Marley as a possible partner.
Now he and Marley are rushing to retrain their competitive programs before leaving Sunday for Four Continents. The pairs event begins Thursday.
"We have been skating since nationals, but it mainly has been to work on individual elements," he said. "Four Continents was so close to nationals that we were more concerned about having the programs still ready if something happened that sent us to worlds.
"We trained our programs today and didn't feel out of shape. I think we'll be just fine."
From tryout to Torun to Taipei. Marley and Brubaker are going places fast.
"If anyone had suggested to me last August that this could happen, I would have stared in disbelief," Brubaker said.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker perform their short program at January’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, N.C. Credit: Chuck Burton / Associated Press