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Abbott and top U.S. pair join coaching-change carousel

May 22, 2009 | 11:55 am


The U.S. figure skating's coaching-change carousel is getting pretty crowded.

And the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo., a little emptier.

The newest riders on the merry-go-round are two reigning national champions who trained at the World Arena and are now relocating a substantial distance from Colorado.

They follow 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, who will simply move across Los Angeles after announcing Wednesday she was leaving Charlene Wong for Frank Carroll.

I had confirmed Friday that 2009 national men's champion Jeremy Abbott was about to announce he is leaving Tom Zakrajsek, who also coaches the top women's finisher at the 2009 worlds, Rachael Flatt, as well as the No. 2 U.S. man, Brandon Mroz. (Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Mroz as the top men's finisher.) I didn't know at that point who Abbott's new coach would be. Now I do: One minute after I posted the news of Abbott's departure in this blog, U.S. Figure Skating sent out a release announcing that Abbott was moving to Detroit to train with 1994 world champion Yuka Sato of Japan.

Ironically, Zakrajsek, who coached Abbott for a decade, is in Florida this week to accept the coach of the year award from the Professional Skaters Assn.

Meanwhile, U.S. Figure Skating announced Friday that Keauna McLaughlin of Los Angeles and Rockne Brubaker of Algonquin, Ill., the 2008 and 2009 pairs champions, are ending a three-year association with Dalilah Sappenfield to join the dean of U.S. pairs coaches, John Nicks, in Aliso Viejo. He coached 1979 world champions Tai KeaunaBabilonia and Randy Gardner, two-time world bronze medalists Jenni Meno and Todd Sand and three-time U.S. champions JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley.

Nicks, 80, has been out of coaching since working with Sasha Cohen at the 2006 Olympics.

Despite winning their second straight U.S. title, McLaughlin and Brubaker had a disappointing 2009 season after a dazzling debut at the national championships a year earlier.

They were 11th at the world championships, where their skating in both phases of the competition was unimpressive. The rookie U.S. pair, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, finished two spots higher.

I spoke with Brubaker late Friday, and he was quick to thank Sappenfield for the way she supported their decision to try something new. She called Nicks on their behalf after the skaters told her they intended to meet with him.

"Dalilah is a great coach,'' Brubaker said, "and I give her a lot of credit for what Keauna and I accomplished. There are just times when a team and a skater need a change.

Last season was definitely challenging. Although we struggled at times, there were still a lot of good things, with our choreography and the difficulty of our programs, and it will make us more prepared for next season.''

In the USFS statement, Sappenfield said: "Of course it's hard to see your students move on. However, we all made this decision with a great amount of deliberation and forethought. I wish them nothing but the best in their quest for Olympic gold, and I will continue to support them however they need me.''

Brubaker said he and McLaughlin expect to start training with Nicks in a couple weeks. He still is recovering from April 3 surgery to repair sports hernias.

"This is the first week I have started to feel better,'' he said.

After winning the Grand Prix Final and the national title, Abbott's season ended on a downer. He followed a brilliant short program at nationals with a lackluster free skate, then slogged to fifth at the Four Continents Championship before being hopelessly outclassed at worlds.

Via telephone from Orlando, Zakrajsek told me he was "a little surprised'' that Abbott chose to end their 10-year working relationship after the skater had the breakthrough season in a career previously noted more for great potential than great performance. It may be even more surprising that he chose Sato, who never has been the primary coach of a highly ranked skater.

"We had lengthy discussions, and Jeremy treated me with the utmost respect,'' Zakrajsek said. "Sure, I'm a little disappointed, but ultimately it is the skater's choice after each season whether he or she wants me to continue coaching them.''

Oh, and I figure now is as good a time as any to reveal a coaching change involving another former national champion pairs team, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who announced a week ago that they were leaving Phillip Mills to train with Meno and Sand.

Inoue and Baldwin won U.S. titles in 2004 and 2006 but were not a factor in this year's nationals.

Some of these moves smack of last-ditch efforts. Others are probably overdue. But it is rare to have so many involving skaters with such decorated resumes at the same time.

"It's an Olympic year,'' Brubaker said. "There is a lot at stake.''

-- Philip Hersh

Photos, from top: Jeremy Abbott gives the appropriate reaction to his poor free skate at the 2009 world championships; Keauna McLaughlin feels similar emotions after she and partner Rockne Brubaker also fared poorly in the worlds free skate. Credits: David J. Phillip / Associated Press