Rena Inoue thought she had consigned pair skating to her past.
Competing for her native Japan, she had teamed with Tomoaki Koyama to finish 15th at the 1991 World Figure Skating Championships and 14th at the 1992 Olympics. Eager for something different, she switched to singles and finished 18th at the 1994 Olympics, inspiring the Japanese Skating Federation to send her to Lake Arrowhead in 1996 to further her training.
While she skated there, one of her coaches, Sashi Kuchiki, mentioned her to a fellow coach, John Baldwin Sr. His son, John Jr., had qualified for the U.S. championships in singles 14 times but couldn't master quadruple jumps and moved to pairs, only to find no partners at his skill level. In one of life's thunderbolt moments, John Sr. pictured his son and Inoue joining forces.
"He kept calling me to have one tryout with Johnny," Inoue said. "I quit pairs in 1992, when I was 15. I hadn't done it since then, and I was a lot older. I just told him, 'I can't do it anymore.' His dad said, 'Just one tryout. It might not work out anyway.'
"He kept calling me and bothering me. Finally I said, 'This will never stop unless I have a tryout with your son.' "
When they met 2 1/2 years ago at Paramount Iceland, it wasn't love at first sight. She questioned his commitment, and he wondered if he should forget skating and plunge into the wholesale car business he had been involved in since he was 16.
There were a number of reasons their partnership shouldn't have worked. Yet, after a few minutes on the ice, both felt something click.
"She was the first girl I tried out with," Baldwin said, "and the last."
From that uncertain beginning sprang a partnership that took them to Europe this season for their first two Grand Prix competitions, where they became the highest-ranked U.S. pair and a team to watch at this week's U.S. championships at Dallas. It also led to a romantic relationship, a sweet bonus.
"When you spend so much time with somebody every day, you hope you like the person," Baldwin said. "And in the case of Rena, I found out what kind of person she was and I had a lot of respect for her. She's a great skater, and I look up to her."
Learning to compromise and trust each other helped them rise from 11th place at the 2001 U.S. competition to fourth last year. In winning their first competition this season, the Indy Challenge, they impressed U.S. Figure Skating Assn. officials enough to win berths at the Bofrost Cup in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and the Cup of Russia in Moscow.
They were sixth after the short program in Germany but moved up to finish a creditable fifth. They were fourth at the Cup of Russia after the short program and finished fifth again but weren't disappointed because their marks ranged from 4.6 to 5.3 for their short program and from 5.0 to 5.5 for their long program.
"Cup of Russia was a personal best," Baldwin said. "It's hard going to Russia. The conditions there are crazy and the food is different.... The audience was mostly quiet but for our program, the audience was really behind us and started clapping."
The Grand Prix events were milestones for Inoue, 26, and Baldwin, 29, because they gained international exposure and a chance to move up in the weak U.S. pair ranks. Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, national pair champions the last three years, gave up their Olympic eligibility.
"We were very pleased with our placement [at the 2002 championships]. I don't think we were going to be higher because of the politics," Baldwin said of their finish behind Ina and Zimmerman, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, and Stephanie Kalesavich and Aaron Parchem. "Even the third-place team had a lot more experience than us internationally. This year, going into it, we should be set up to be the champions, because with John and Kyoko out, it opens up quite a bit....
"I don't think anybody has more technical ability than we do. That's why I'm confident we have a shot at the championship this year."
They weren't sure they'd ever say that when they first teamed up.
Baldwin, 5 feet 9, jumped faster than his 4-10 partner. Performing side-by-side double axels one day, she was startled to see him in midair before she had taken off.
"He slowed down for me, and I had to pick it up," said Inoue, who has a green card and expects to become a U.S. citizen before the 2006 Olympics. "You can't just ask your partner to slow down. You have to put some effort into it."
Said Baldwin: "In singles, you can go off and change the program and you don't have to ask someone or even think about it. In pairs, if you do that, you're sunk. We've both done every triple separately, as singles, but putting that together next to someone who's within your peripheral vision, that's totally different."
They've fused their styles and become a pair, not merely two skaters sharing the ice. They incorporate into their programs six lifts, a throw triple loop and throw triple salchow, as well as side-by-side jumps and artful spins. Their determination impresses their coach, Jill Watson, who also does their choreography and coordinates their travel.
"Just because you're a strong single skater doesn't mean you'll be a strong pairs skater," said Watson, who teamed with Peter Oppegard to win pairs bronze medals at the 1988 Olympics. "They're very strong singles skaters, which has lent itself to their ability to do some difficult things, but there's not one day they come in and don't work real hard. Not one day. They work harder than anybody I've ever seen. That's to their benefit. And with hard work comes the confidence."
Their work includes training three days a week at Paramount and two at Aliso Viejo, a long trek from their Santa Monica home. "We're actually driving more than we're skating these days," Baldwin said, laughing.
In the car or on the ice, they've learned to avoid quarrels. "It gets intense sometimes because we want to get better," Inoue said. "It's like two different people trying to do one thing. There may be two different opinions, but we have to figure out which one will work for us."
Although older than many of their rivals, they haven't set a time limit on their career. Qualifying for the Turin Olympics would be the ultimate prize, but they know how capricious figure skating can be.
"It would be nice to say we're doing the Olympics in 2006, but that's looking really far into the future," Baldwin said. "I think it's better to have short-term goals. In pairs, it takes a long time to come together, and we've really just started to mesh."
What -- U.S. figure skating championships.
When -- Tuesday through Saturday.
Where -- Dallas.
Outlook -- Torrance native Michelle Kwan will pursue her sixth consecutive women's title and seventh overall. Only Maribel Vinson, who won nine times between 1928 and 1937, has won more U.S. women's titles; only Vinson (1928-33) and Gretchen Merrill (1943-48) won six in a row. Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes and 2002 runner-up Sasha Cohen will challenge Kwan. A new men's champion will be crowned in the wake of Todd Eldredge's departure from Olympic-eligible ranks after a dispute with the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. Tim Goebel, Olympic bronze medalist and 2001 U.S. champion, and two-time champion Michael Weiss lead a thin men's field.
Three-time pair champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman have left the Olympic-eligible ranks. No clear successor remains.
Four-time dance champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, who missed most of the season because Lang had tendinitis, will be pressed by Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, a duo that has twice been runner-up.
(All times Pacific)
Tuesday -- Compulsory dance 6:10 p.m.
Wednesday -- Original dance 1:10 p.m., pairs short program 5:50 p.m.
Thursday -- Men's short program 2:40 p.m., women's short program 6:20 p.m.
Friday -- Free dance 12:30 p.m., pairs free skate 5:10 p.m.
Saturday -- Men's free skate, 11:10 a.m., women's free skate 4:15 p.m.