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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Five things to watch at Skate America

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

There are nearly three months to go before the U.S. championships, but the fall's competitions will go a long way in setting up who has a winning program -- and which skaters need to put in more work. Some skaters, such as Alissa Czisny, are looking to up their technical level, while others, such as Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are scrapping programs and starting over.

1. Alissa Czisny: jumping queen?

Say this for the defending U.S. national champion, whose career has been a combination of ethereal grace and mystifying shortcomings: She's not standing pat.

Czisny has resurrected a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, along with a triple Salchow, in a bid to include a total of seven triple jumps in her free skate.

It's the most ambitious program Czisny, 24, has skated in her career, one that includes two national titles and wins at the 2010 Skate Canada and Grand Prix Final. She placed a career-high fifth at April's world championships in Moscow.

Her newfound confidence can be traced to a coaching change. She switched to Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen in Detroit, following a crushing 10th-place finish at the U.S. Championships in 2010.

2. Pairs showdowns

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the three-time world champions, are the overwhelming favorites. But the U.S. pairing of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin is intriguing. Both are better known for skating with someone else. Coughlin, 25, who never made an Olympic team, was mulling a career change after unsatisfying results with longtime partner Caitlin Yankowskas. Denney, 18, split from Jeremy Barrett after a training accident where she cut Barrett's leg with her skate blade.

The pair might sneak in for the bronze at Skate America, likely behind the Germans and Chinese standouts Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao.

But there's potential -- Coughlin, with Yankowskas, won the national title last season and Denney, with Barrett, won the national crown in 2010. Denney and Barrett finished 13th at the Vancouver Olympics.

Another U.S. pairs champion, Rockne Brubaker, who won twice with Keauna McLaughlin, debuts with new partner Mary Beth Marley. They will compete together for the first time this season.

3. Caroline Zhang's comeback?

Four years after winning bronze in her Grand Prix debut as a 14-year-old budding star at Skate America, U.S. skater Zhang is ready to climb back up the ranks.

"My Grand Prix events last year were a disaster, along with nationals," she told "My goal for Skate America is to just show that I'm a competitor again and that I can still be a contender for the world team."

Once a U.S. bronze medalist (2009), she finished 12th at nationals last season and ninth in 2010's Skate America. Zhang now works with Peter Oppegard, who coaches Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na and Karen Kwan-Oppegard in the Artesia, Calif., rink owned by the Kwan family.

4. Charlie White and Meryl Davis: Changing it up

Fresh off the first world ice dancing title in U.S. history in April, White and Davis are starting the new season with a late switch, scrapping a plan to skate to music from the classic film "La Strada" and installing a new program to "Die Fledermaus." They announced the change just this month.

"We didn't follow the story of the movie and that caused some confusion, which is just the opposite of what you want," White said. "You don't want the judges to feel confused for any reason."

Whip up a new free skate in a month or so?

No problem.

Of the quick change, "I'm really pleased with how we were able to handle the situation," White said.

We'll see if they've worked out the kinks when they debut the program at Skate America.

5. Evan Lysacek ... or not

Oh, wait. He won't be there. But the controversial issue of the 2010 Olympic champion's late withdrawal from this event will linger like a bad smell in the concourses of Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.

Both his and U.S. Figure Skating's reputation took hits when he pulled out in a dispute involving money. Message boards lit up with angry words for both -- fans who bought tickets felt ripped off by the Skate America ads showing Lysacek's photo, even though he hadn't actually committed to the event, agreeing only to be entered by the federation.

Fans are also mad at Lysacek, who now might not compete in any Grand Prix event this year. (He is automatically qualified for the U.S. championships in January.) This, after he whetted appetites when he recently announced his intention to compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi after a year off. Skate America would've been his season debut.

Lost in the shuffle -- the revelation that skating's big names have earned six-figure fees for appearing in Grand Prix events, according to the Chicago Tribune.