Castile, Okolski surge past champs for first U.S. title

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski's breakthrough was worth the wait.

The couple won their first pairs title in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday, surging past defending champs Rena Inoue and John Baldwin with an innovative and solid performance.

"Unbelievable. It feels great. It's everything we wanted to do this year," Castile said. "It feels good. It feels really good."

Castile and Okolski were third after the short program, but they jumped ahead with a total score of 178.40 points. That was enough to put them in front of Inoue and Baldwin, who blew their chance at a third national title with two major mistakes, including a crash on their trademark throw triple axel.

Inoue and Baldwin finished with 178.15 points. Naomi Nari Nam and Themi Leftheris dropped to a distant third after missing both of their throws.

"This nationals was the toughest for us," Inoue said. "Today it wasn't our day, but we have to accept it. We'll go home and train hard. Fortunately we made the world team."

American pairs has been a wasteland for much of the last decade. Most teams had all the staying power of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, splitting after one poor showing at nationals. Those that stayed together were barely in the same rink as the Chinese and Europeans when it came to technical ability.

Even when Inoue and Baldwin landed the world's first throw triple axel, it wasn't enough to scare anybody.

But Castile and Okolski might change that.

They've already been together for five years, sticking it out even when they didn't see instant gratification in the results. They were eighth at nationals last year, and had to go through sectionals just to qualify for this year's event.

"It's a shock, but at the same time I feel it's something we've always wanted to attain," Castile said. "We have worked extremely hard this year. We're in a great program and we do everything we need to do to be here."

Skating to "Requeim for a Dream," they showed the kind of innovation and quality not seen very often on this side of the Atlantic. They were fast and smooth, and used their edges the way skate inventors meant them to be.

They didn't settle for the usual tricks, either. Their triple twist was spectacular, so huge he had time to lace up his skates before he caught her again. Their entry into the throw triple salchow was a dance lift, making the trick even harder.

What stood out most, though, was his footwork during their lifts. He skated so quietly and with such even speed that it was hard to tell he was carrying another person above him.

They were a little out of unison on their footwork and side-by-side spins, and they'll need to do side-by-side triple jumps to have any chance of being in contention at the world championships.

They were doing triples earlier this season, but dropped them after Castile sprained her ankle.

"It wasn't consistent enough to put in," Okolski said. "It's definitely something we'll be looking at putting in for Four Continents and worlds."

Inoue and Baldwin were up after Castile and Okolski. Not only did they see the standing ovation the couple got, they heard the marks they'd have to beat.

After their first trick, it was clear they wouldn't be able to do it.

If Inoue and Baldwin are known for anything besides the throw triple axel, it's Baldwin falling on their side-by-side triple jumps. Sure enough, he crashed to the ice on a triple toe loop, taking their title hopes right along with him.

Inoue landed the throw triple axel on her feet, but couldn't hold on. She flipped off her edge and fell over, drawing a sympathetic "Oooh" from the crowd.

The errors also put them in jeopardy of losing a spot on the world team. Worlds are in Inoue's native Japan, and she's been looking forward to having all her friends and relatives see her skate.

But Nam and Leftheris, who were second after the short program, couldn't overtake their training partners. They're only in their second season together, and their inexperience showed as they missed both their throws.

"I'm a little disappointed, I'm not going to lie," Nam said. "We did very well in the opening and I think we got a little overwhelmed. We need to work on keeping our heads in place, and keeping it together for the whole program."