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U.S. pairs celebrate Valentine's Day on skating's biggest stage

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Jeremy Barrett forgave his girlfriend, Amanda Evora, for spending Valentine's Day in the arms of a married man. In fact, he was beaming with pride when he saw her gaze into the man's eyes as he held her close.

Barrett and Evora are U.S. Olympic pairs figure skaters from Bradenton, Fla., (yes, Florida), and though they train in the same rink and have been dating for five years, they are competing against each other with other partners. Barrett, 25, is paired with 16-year-old Caydee Denney, and Evora, 25, skates with 29-year-old Mark Ladwig, a married father of a 1-year-old son.

They celebrated Valentine's Day by performing their short programs at the Pacific Coliseum, and will be back on the ice Monday for the long program. Barrett bought Evora a small coffee maker before they left home, and they had lunch together before going to the arena. They are planning a romantic dinner for Monday night.

Evora and Ladwig had the better Sunday, delighting the pro-USA crowd with a fluid, near-flawless routine to the "Portuguese Love Theme" from the movie, Love Actually. They were grinning ear to ear and bouncing stuffed bunnies on their laps as their season-best score (57.86) popped onto the scoreboard. They are in 10th place heading into the long program.

"We were destined to have a good day," Evora said. "It's Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, the sun was out today. It was meant to be, and I kept that feeling inside. We were just happy to be here, but this was icing on the cake."

Sentimental favorites Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China, the 2002 and 2006 bronze medalists, are back after retiring three years ago. The married couple was the first to skate, displayed unparalleled precision, set the bar high with a 76.66, and nobody scored higher. They are in the lead after the short program, followed by Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany (75.96), and Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia (74.16).

As for skating against her boyfriend, Evora smiled and said: "It's just like every other day. I was more nervous for him than I have been for a long time. But he did great, and I was so happy for him. The thing that made me happiest was seeing his smile during footwork. Our priority here is to skate. Next week, when the pressure is off, we'll get to spend more time together."

Barrett and Denney also got a rousing reception from the crowd, and their only major mistake was Denney leaning forward a tad and reducing a triple-toe jump into a double. They scored 53.26, and wound up in 14th place.

"I think it was timing more than anything, but tomorrow's a different day and I feel very confident," she said. "It was still amazing to be out there. There was so much energy even before we started skating."

Added Barrett: "The crowd was behind us so much you wouldn't even know we were skating in a different country."

The two couples represent the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club and train under the tutelage of coaches Jim Peterson, Alison Smith and Lyndon Johnston, a former Canadian pairs skater. Barrett is a native of Sarasota, Fla. Denney is a native of Ocala, Fla., and their partners moved to the area for skating.

Peterson said he was proud of both couples, and particularly delighted for Evora and Ladwig, who had struggled through "exhaustive money issues" and urged by family members to give up their dream three years ago. They are the ultimate blue-collar skaters. Ten years ago, Ladwig was working the midnight to 6 a.m. shift as a country music deejay on Froggy 99.9 in his hometown of Fargo, N.D., under the moniker "Moss Quito." Evora was a waitress at Denny's.

"They've had money issues their entire careers," said Peterson. "At one point, they literally were the only ones believing in themselves. Well, them and their coaches. Even their families were like, 'Why don't you guys just quit?' They stuck through it and kept going. Money had run out, and placements were not where we wanted them. But they have the strongest hearts."

Denney, meanwhile, is a perky former roller skater whose maturity on the ice belies her youth. The 11th-grader is a huge fan of quarterback Tim Tebow and tennis player Rafael Nadal, and is eager to get her driver's license (and a red car) upon returning home from the Olympics.

Barrett makes ends meet by driving the Zamboni and manning the snack bar at the rink.

NBC analyst Dick Button said of Barrett and Denney: "She's got tremendous power in that lift and the landing. They're exciting, they're forceful, and they have confidence. They're an up-and-coming, and wonderfully exciting young pair. That is very good for pair skating in the United States."

The U.S. hasn't won a pairs medal since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard took bronze at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

Shen and Zhao remain the couple to beat, even after their hiatus.

"The practices so far, they've been brilliant, they've been breathtaking," said Button. "Pairs skating is one of the most difficult of all elements of skating because two people have to do the same thing together, in unison. All the difficulties of the lifts and the jumps have just been astounding. They're just spectacular, the way they move together. They've come back at the ages of 31 and 36. Well, hats off to them. They're really wonderful. I love watching them."

So does Barrett: "I expected them to skate great. They've been together longer than Caydee's been alive."

Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald

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