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FIGURE SKATING U.S. CHAMPIONSHIPS : Kuchiki-Sand’s Pairs Title a Triumph for Nicks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Feb. 15, 1961, a Sabena Boeing 707 jet crashed near the Brussels, Belgium airport, killing 73 persons, including the entire U.S. figure skating team that was en route to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Afterward, as the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. regrouped, there was an influx of foreign coaches into the country. One of them was a young Englishman, John Nicks.

On Friday night at the Target Center, 30 years to the day after the tragedy, Nicks again stood at the top of his profession in the United States. Joining some of his past pairs team such as JoJo Starbuck-Ken Shelley and Tai Babilonia-Randy Gardner, Natasha Kuchiki of Canoga Park and Todd Sand of Thousand Oaks won the national championship.

They did not perform as well as they have at other times, finishing second in a free skating program that counted toward two-thirds of the final score. But their outstanding first-place performance in Wednesday night’s original program gave them the edge.

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The fact that they won the championship after having been together for only 18 months might seem remarkable, but it actually is more of a comment on pairs skating in the United States. They finished second last year with only six months experience together at Nicks’ Costa Mesa rink. When champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo split in April, Kuchiki and Sand became the favorites.

More remarkable has been Nicks’ work with Jenni Meno of Westlake, Ohio, and Scott Wendland of Costa Mesa. She finished 12th at nationals last year as a singles skater, then decided, at 19, to seek a brighter future in pairs. She and Wendland, 25, had been together only nine months when they finished third Friday night. Meno was sidelined for one of them with appendicitis.

And truly amazing was the performance of Calla Urbanski of Chicago and Rocky Marval of New Egypt, N.J. She has been trying for years to win a medal, going through two husbands, five partners and various jobs, including one as a bartender.

She teamed only six months ago with Marval, 25, who also has a very un-skaterlike background. He owns his own trucking company, Marvaldi Trucking, Inc. They won the free skating competition to finish second overall.

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At 30, Urbanski was the oldest person in the pairs competition. At 14, Kuchiki was the youngest. Her partner, Sand, is 27.

All three teams earned berths in the World Championships next month at Munich.


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