By MAUREEN LYNCH – email@example.com
As soon as Rockne Brubaker opens his eyes each morning, he is reminded.
The five Olympic rings stare Brubaker down, adorning a flag hanging over the 22-year-old’s bed at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., ensuring that from the moment he wakes until he falls asleep, Olympic glory never is an afterthought.
It has taken a tremendous amount of time, talent and determination to earn the right to dream as big as the Olympics and have the chance to make the dream a reality. And it’s a chance Brubaker, an Algonquin native, never will take for granted.
So Brubaker’s days in Colorado training as an elite figure skater are filled with constant reminders of that Olympic dream, which in a few weeks could become reality.
“I am surrounded by the idea of the Olympics,” said Brubaker, who trains in Colorado Springs with his skating partner, Keauna McLaughlin, and attends the University of Colorado. “I go to the Olympic training center everyday for training and working out, I think about it all the time, and I am constantly reminded of it. The motto of the U. S Olympic Committee is ‘It’s not every four years; it’s every day,’ and I agree. You have to keep your mind focused on the goal and keep working toward the Olympics every single day.”
So each day, Brubaker trains and dreams of the Olympics. And if he and McLaughlin finish well enough at the World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, which begin March 22, Brubaker might be able to stop dreaming and start celebrating.
Making the dream real
Eighty percent of the allotted spots for the Olympic Games, which will be held next year in Vancouver, are determined by results from the World Figure Skating Championships. Each country can have three entries in a single discipline, meaning Brubaker and McLaughlin potentially could be one of three pairs from the US to qualify.
It is an enormous challenge, but one the two of them are eagerly awaiting.
“We are going in trying not to think too much about the fact that it’s Worlds,” Brubaker said. “We are trying to think of it like we have to go out and just have two good skates. Let it be what it’s going to be. If we put out two great skates, we know we can be in the top five.”
Brubaker and McLaughlin are relatively new to the national skating scene, but neither is new to the sport. This will be their first appearance in the World Figure Skating Championships because last year, McLaughlin was only 15 years old and and could not participate because of her age.
But 2009 has started strong for the duo. Brubaker and McLaughlin won their second consecutive US National Championship in January and took fifth at the Four Continents Championships in early February.
Icenetwork.com currently ranks the pair eighth in the world – the highest ranking of any American skating tandem.
Still, the accolades and recognition have only kept Brubaker humble.
“That’s the way he always has been,” said Brett Anderson, a friend of Brubaker’s who graduated from Jacobs in 2004. “He was never the kind of guy who bragged about their accomplishments or let any success get to their head.”
The humility stems from Brubaker’s roots.
Unlike his partner, Brubaker was not born into a family of figure skaters. His mother, Monica, was a working mother of four when she first introduced her son to ice skating.
Brubaker’s older sister, Shauna, was taking skating lessons at the Polar Dome, which used to be in Dundee. And Brubaker, then 5, told his mother he wanted to learn to skate, too.
When Brubaker changed his mind, the skates already were securely tied to his feet, and eight weeks of lessons were paid for.
There was no turning back, despite Brubaker’s initial resistance.
“He told me he wanted to try it, so we got him all set up, got him in some skates, and then he decides he doesn’t want to,” Monica said with a laugh. “So then I go to get my money back only to be told, ‘Sorry, no refunds.’ I was just at my wit’s end. I said ‘You’re going to skate whether you like it or not!’ I threw him out on the ice, locked the door, and watched him throw a tantrum out there.
“He cried for a couple minutes, but … then he got up and kind of shuffled over to the other kids. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ ”
By the time Brubaker was seven, he had mastered an axle jump.
“[Skating] came easily to him, but he always worked very hard,” Monica said. “There was a time when he was about 13 that he thought he might not skate anymore. He wanted to do more wrestling and basketball, because he was always very athletic.
“But six months later, he went back to skating. And he went back with a vengeance.”
While attending Jacobs, Brubaker trained in Bensenville with legendary Olympic coach Oleg Vasiliev. During the 2001-02 season, Brubaker and former partner, Stephanie Freitag, placed fifth at the novice level of the Midwestern Sectional Championships.
In 2003, after his junior year, Brubaker moved to Colorado Springs to train full-time. He still graduated from Jacobs, but balanced his school work with a rigorous training schedule.
“Everyone at school was so supportive,” Brubaker said, “but my schedule was not like anyone else’s. I was doing things other people were not doing. But I’m glad that is what I chose to do.”
“We’re all really proud of him,” Anderson said. “When he moved out there, he was giving up a lot because he was so dedicated to what he is doing now. It was our senior year of high school he was going to be missing, and that’s a year that’s a lot of fun. But his dedication was really strong.”
Brubaker hasn’t forgotten his friends’ support, either, Anderson said.
This summer, Anderson and two other friends of Brubaker’s from Jacobs are flying out to see Brubaker compete in Las Vegas – on Brubaker.
“He always calls to tell us when he’ll be on TV,” Anderson said. “We’re all interested because he’s doing so well.”
Colorado – and now Vancouver - calls
Once in Colorado, Brubaker paired with Mariel Miller, winning several medals on the junior level, including the gold at the 2005 US Figure Skating Championships. When their partnership ended in 2006, Brubaker found McLaughlin.
It was a perfect fit for both skaters, McLaughlin said.
“We are very similar and very competitive by nature,” she said. “We’re great friends, so that has helped our relationship on the ice.
“ … He calms me down. When I hold his hand, when we’re getting ready to compete, I feel very calm. We try to keep things light and have some fun, too because it’s easy to get stressed.”
Perhaps the most significant win of Brubaker’s career, at least for him, came with McLaughlin in the 2008 US National Championships. Brubaker had been injured not long before, and had worked harder than usual to get in shape for the competition.
It was the pair’s first time competing at the senior level, and injury was not going to rob Brubaker of a shot at a gold medal.
“I knew I had to skate well,” Brubaker said. “To win was so rewarding. We put all our blood, sweat and tears into that [competition], and I had worked so hard to get back into shape.”
Training is intense now, too, and stress, when one is pursuing something as lofty as an Olympic bid, seems natural.
But the dream and the chance to compete for the country is exciting enough to keep anxiety in check.
“I have always wanted to go to the Olympics,” Brubaker said. “I love the concept of representing your country and competing in a sport you love. I know that if we work hard, it is something that we can achieve.”