The first time Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn skated together, they could barely do any moves. Scott, a former singles skater, considered quitting the sport to become more competitive in track and cross-country. Dulebohn tried out with a couple of other women but did not click with either one.
Yet even though the inexperienced Scott never had attempted any lifts, Coach Karl Kurtz was able to convince Dulebohn that she was the right partner for him.
It took seven months before they mastered a death spiral, which despite the dramatic name is a basic pairs maneuver, and they finished last in their first competition nearly seven years ago.
"The only reason we even qualified for nationals is because there weren't enough teams in other regions," said Scott, laughing.
But the couple plugged away and managed to finish third at the junior level of the 1997 U.S. championships. They have been together since. In the world of U.S. pairs skating, where many partnerships end even after finishing on the podium, Scott's and Dulebohn's longevity and perseverance are perhaps their biggest strengths.
In January, in their sixth trip to nationals at the senior level, they claimed their first U.S. title and earned a trip to the world championships. Although they did not perform a clean program and competed in a weak field, winning a championship still marked the culmination of years of effort. In three previous trips to nationals, they were runner-ups to Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, who retired from the Olympic-eligible circuit last year.
"We knew if we were going to be successful, we were going to have to wait a long time," said Dulebohn, a Silver Spring native who grew up in Germantown and will have numerous family and friends cheering him and Scott on at MCI Center.
"They're very excited about worlds," said Kurtz, who coaches the pair at the University of Delaware. "They'll be able to skate in front of a hometown crowd. And it's always nice to have that national championship under their belt, too."
Both admit there were several times when they wondered if they would get this far. Like any pair, they have had their share of trying times. Last year was one of the most difficult.
Last spring, Dulebohn began experiencing pain in his hip but he continued to train. By June, the pain became so excruciating that he couldn't skate one lap around the rink. About a month later after undergoing an MRI exam and a bone scan, he learned that his hip was fractured.
He was on crutches for three months; Scott, meanwhile, was forced to train alone. They missed all of their international competitions in the months leading up to nationals and the Salt Lake City Olympics.
"I used to go through the programs in my mind while I was in the pool [for rehabilitation]," Dulebohn said.
Three weeks before last year's nationals, the U.S. qualifier for the Winter Games, they resumed training. Remarkably, they finished second and joined Ina and Zimmerman in Salt Lake. They placed 13th at the Olympics and seventh at the world championships in Nagano, Japan.
"Philip was living in constant pain," Kurtz said. "It really stopped him in his tracks. It made him wonder, 'What will my life be like without skating?' "
Scott and Dulebohn remained uncertain about their skating future last spring. It wasn't an easy decision; the sport is expensive and Scott and Dulebohn give lessons at the University of Delaware to help cover expenses.
Ultimately, Dulebohn said, the chance to compete in the world championships in his home town was a motivating factor to return. Scott and Dulebohn also thought they had unfinished business. They hope to compete in the 2006 Olympics in Italy.
"When you say, 'Three more years,' it sounds long," Scott said. "But when you're actually training and skating, it doesn't seem that long. And now we have some momentum going."
"There are always going to be tough times," she added, unwrapping a bandage from around her rib after a recent practice. "But you just have to look at the ultimate goal."
In sixth attempt, Philip Dulebohn and Tiffany Scott won the U.S. title, place in worlds.