The United States has two pairs spots at the Olympics. Here's the outlook for the major teams heading into this week's national championships in Spokane, Washington:
Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett: Last year's upstart national silver medalists, they also won raves by placing in ninth at the 2009 world championships, ahead of national champions McLaughlin and Brubaker. They showed that they could be technically clean last year; this year they displayed artistic growth and a lot more passion on the ice. However, they have been making more mistakes in their programs this season, and they haven't seen the Grand Prix success that McLaughlin and Brubaker or Inoue and Baldwin have. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see this team repeat as national medalists and compete in Vancouver - I'd love to see them there.
Rena Inoue and John Baldwin: The senior statesmen of the U.S. pairs, former national champions and the only ones competing here who have been to the Olympics (in 2006, where they made history by landing the throw triple axel for the first time in international competition). The chance to see a throw triple axel (which they landed beautifully once this season) makes any free skate by Inoue and Baldwin exciting. Unfortunately, the rest of their skating is not quite as exciting. They are technically competent, but not spectacular, and lack the difficulty of some of the other teams. Still, their consistency and ability to skate clean (enough) when they need to can always bring them success.
Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker: The two-time national champions are looking for a three-peat this season and their first shot at an Olympic games. They switched coaches in the offseason and currently work with John Nicks. This team has the highest scoring potential of the U.S. pairs, and they've tended to do fairly well internationally, with numerous Grand Prix competition medals. The thing that frustrates fans is that they are so prone to errors that they leave many points on the table. McLaughlin, in particular, has struggled on side by side triple jumps. As was evidenced by their 11th place finish at the 2009 worlds (two spots behind less experienced teammates Denney and Barrett), it doesn't matter how much potential you have if you can't get it together for the big events.
Their "Unchained Melody" short program is gorgeous, although their "Slumdog Millionaire" free skate doesn't really resonate. Even if they make some mistakes, I expect that this team will have no trouble making the Olympic team. When they're clean, they can contend with some of the world's best and light up the arena.
The Dark Horses
Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski: They surprised everyone by winning the nationals the last time they were in Spokane, in 2007. Since then they have had some bad luck with injuries and haven't matched that 2007 success. A beautiful pair with such a nice connection, they finished in sixth place at this year's Skate America. I would never count a national champion out, and perhaps their Spokane magic will return. However, they will have to work hard to outshine some of the pairs who have had more recent success.
Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig: I enjoy watching them and they are a nice pair, but they have never been able to crack that medals podium at nationals. There is nothing that really makes them stand out to me(although some clean programs could change that). They have no world championship experience and no Grand Prix medals, so I wouldn't expect them to be placed on the Olympic team ahead of, say, McLaughlin and Brubaker.
Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin: The team has only been skating together for a couple of years, but they have garnered their share of fans, and definitely have displayed charisma. However, they've only had a few international competitions. I definitely think they can be nationals medalists, but they will have to set themselves apart from the rest of the field...one way would be by skating clean like Denney and Barrett did last year.