Inoue, Baldwin overcome mistakes, lead pairs event

SPOKANE, Wash. -- There really is competition in pairs at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Despite two mistakes, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin won the short program Wednesday night with a personal-best 62.73 points. That's more than a point higher than they got for the short program in 2006 in Italy, where they landed the first throw triple axel at the Olympic Games.

"No, it wasn't better than the Olympics," Baldwin said. "I think we were rewarded a little more on the second mark because of last year. It's nice. I think Rena and I both have put our time in in skating. Our careers span three decades -- since the Reagan era."

But reputation will only carry the two-time national champs so far. Especially now.

For the past decade or so, U.S. pairs competitions have been more like a demolition derby: Whoever ended up with the fewest dings won. At nationals three years ago, there were two clean programs in the entire competition, short program and free skate.

But there's depth galore these days, and more to come in the next few years from the junior ranks.

Naomi Nari Nam and Themistocles Leftheris, in only their second season together, are nipping at Inoue and Baldwin's skates. They scored 62.29 points Wednesday, leaving them less than a half-point behind going into Friday's free skate.

Brooke Castile and Benjamin Okolski were third, but there were four other couples that made a run at it. Of the 16 couples, no one was truly awful.

"We worked really, really hard," Nam said. "We're doing everything so we deserve a world team spot."

Inoue and Baldwin are still the class of the U.S. field, with technical skills that no other couple can match. They struggled with their lift, his arms visibly shaking as he tried to raise her 12 feet in the air. Most other couples would have bailed out, with him either setting her down or her grabbing onto him for dear life.

But they have the trust all successful pairs team have, and they gutted through it. He wound up skating across the entire end of the rink with her high above his head before setting her down.

"There's no way I would ever put a lift down," Baldwin said.

She also stepped out on the landing of the throw triple axel, their trademark move. But the 3½-revolution jump is the toughest trick around -- nobody else in the world has ever completed it -- and it's still worth a lot of points, even with a slight mistake.

"We left a couple of points out on the table," Baldwin said. "Our goal was to come off the ice happy, and that's what we did."

The audience wasn't happy with Nam and Leftheris' marks, booing when they were posted.

"This is the third time our marks have gotten booed, so we're like, 'Yeah, people like us,'" Leftheris said, laughing. "To have that kind of affirmation is good for us."

Nam has always been a crowd pleaser. And a special talent.

She was 13 when she finished second to Michelle Kwan at the 1999 nationals. That she'd be at the Salt Lake City Olympics -- likely on the podium -- seemed like a given.

But her body wouldn't cooperate. She missed much of the next few years with hip injuries, and eventually needed surgery. When she finally got healthy, she decided to try pairs.

She had heard of Leftheris, and he had definitely heard of her.

"I had such a big crush on her," Leftheris said as Nam laughed. "She had a perfect triple flip and I used to watch her technique."

The talent she had as a singles skater was clear Wednesday night as they delighted the crowd with a lively and powerful tango. On their throw triple loop, she soared so high above the ice the people in the first few rows had to look up at her, and she landed it with perfect control.

Try doing that on dry land, let alone a sheet of ice.

Their side-by-side triple toe loops were gorgeous, and in perfect unison.

Their only real flaw was getting out of unison on their side-by-side spins, but it was enough to drop them behind Inoue and Baldwin.

"To be able to come back," Nam said, getting teary when asked about her past life as a singles skater, "I don't know. You just appreciate it so much more."