Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow were earning their record-tying fifth title just as American figure skating was finding someone to take their place.
The couple that has dominated American ice dancing this decade won a record-tying fifth U.S.
Figure Skating Championships crown Saturday. Now ranked sixth in the world, they’ll head to the Nagano Games along with training cohorts Jessica Joseph and Charles Butler, the world junior champions who are 15 and 18, respectively.
In the usually staid world of ice dancing, a couple winning so many titles isn’t surprising. A dance duo rising so quickly at such a young age certainly is.
“Jessica and Charlie set records,” Swallow said. “They have done what U.S. teams have always dreamed of doing and that’s going to junior worlds in a number of years and moving up. They won two national championships, they won the world championships, which a U.S. team has never done.
“The world is going to look at that and realize that the U.S. is someone to contend with, not only in juniors, but moving up through seniors.”
Punsalan and Swallow, who have been married four years, equaled the achievements of Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky (1968-72) and Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert (1981-85). They did it in a different manner, twice making it to the top, then falling back before taking the last three crowns.
“We’re pretty excited about our fifth title,” Swallow said of their final nationals. “It’s always a long week. Ice dancers have to compete four times and it’s always a relief to finish on a high note. I think it was a strong event in general.”
They head to the Olympics under far different circumstances than four years ago, when Punsalan’s father was stabbed to death by her brother just days before the couple was to leave for Lillehammer.
Under tremendous emotional strain, they finished 15th.
“The last Olympics was definitely a mixture of highs and lows for us,” Punsalan said. “This time, we’d like to go in and make it a celebration and do it for us.”
Since those Olympics, Punsalan and Swallow have become a factor on the world scene, steadily rising in world rankings.
Butler and Joseph, one of the top five couples that train at the Detroit Skating Club who swept the first five spots here, aren’t exactly newcomers. They’ve done well in various internationals, winning their last five events at the junior level.
But they now have leaped to a much higher plane as the first American duo to go straight from juniors to the Olympics.
“We’ve been skating together for six years and we always have a good sense of teamwork and a lot of spirit,” said Butler, who admitted he and Joseph idolize Punsalan and Swallow.
“We always look up to them and hope to follow in their footsteps. They are a great example.”
Joseph and Butler won’t be following their example completely. Punsalan and Swallow are changing their free dance from the Elvis Presley routine they used most of this season to a tango for Nagano, hoping to raise their artistic marks.
“We will be using some elements from this program,” Swallow said. “It’s going to inspire us to get ready and give us a little boost. It’s difficult to keep your free dance fresh.”
The third- and fourth-place finishers were ineligible for the Olympic team. Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev were third, but he is not an American citizen. Neither is Mathew Gates, who was fourth with partner Eve Chalom.