After all these years, Laurie Andrews remembers it clearly.
She and her son, Jeremy Barrett, were sitting on a bench at the Nokomis Ice Chateau in Sarasota County. Jeremy, then 8, had shown such promise as a figure skater — "he had very high jumps and was very athletic'' — that his mother was surprised when he said he might give up skating.
A few minutes later, he surprised her again.
"Nope, I've made up my mind,'' he announced. "I'm going to the Olympics.''
And he is.
Now 25, Barrett and his partner, 16-year-old Caydee Denney of Pasco County, earned a trip to this month's Winter Olympics after winning the pairs competition Jan. 16 at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash. They are the first native Floridians to represent the United States in Olympic figure skating.
But that's not all.
Finishing in second place and also Olympics-bound is another pair who train at the same Manatee County rink — University of South Florida student Amanda Evora and her partner, Mark Ladwig.
And (did Hollywood make this up?) there's even more. Barrett of Pair No. 1 has lived with Evora of Pair No. 2 for the past five years. All four skaters will make their Olympic debuts Feb. 14.
"I asked Jeremy if he had anything special planned for Valentine's Day,'' Evora recalls, "and he said, 'Isn't being at the Olympics special enough?' ''
The emergence of the Tampa Bay area — with toaster oven-like temperatures — as a major ice skating center is injecting a bit of romance and irony into the mixed prospects for U.S. Olympic figure skating medals.
Only the men's and ice dance contenders are given much chance of a spot on the victors' podium. Almost no one expects a top three finish for either Florida pair.
But ice is slippery.
"If they skate a perfect program and others don't, things can change,'' says Clive Phipson, Barrett's first coach. "There are two people out there and you can never tell what's going to happen.''
A drive to skate
Bryan and DeeDee Denney hold a dozen national and world roller skating titles between them. They had their tiny blond daughter on wheels as soon as she could walk.
At 2, Caydee Denney "did little bunny hops and shoot the ducks and she'd go down on one knee and do an ending pose,'' her dad says. "She wasn't too shy about getting out in front of people and doing a performance.''
At 9, Denney won the national junior roller-skating championship. She also took to the ice in 1998 after her idol, former roller skater-turned-figure skater Tara Lipinski, won a gold medal at that year's Olympics.
For the next six years, the family drove from their home in Ocala to a rink in Orlando. As Denney progressed, her parents decided she would get better training at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, with its two NHL-size rinks and top-flight coaches. Opened a decade ago, it is the newest of five Tampa Bay rinks that cater to those who like their winter sports without the winter.
In 2004, the Denneys moved to Wesley Chapel, about midpoint on I-75 between Ellenton and the Toyota dealership in Ocala where Bryan Denney is sales manager.
"That way we could have a commute where we could manage my job and her skating and homeschooling and everything else that comes with being a top skater,'' he says.
It was at Ellenton that Caydee met Barrett, nine years her senior.
Born in Sarasota, Barrett began skating at 6 when he went to a birthday party at the Nokomis rink. His mother says he was so clumsy at first, falling and banging his head on the boards, that she insisted he wear a helmet or take group lessons.
"He was a talent from day one,'' says Phipson, his first instructor.
Barrett and sister Shawna were soon skating together in routines, dressed as Sonny and Cher or the Blues Brothers. Because the family didn't have much money, their mother made their costumes and cut their music. Phipson sometimes gave them two hours of private lessons for the price of one.
"You don't mind extending your time,'' he says, "when you find someone willing to work as hard as they did.''
When the Ice Chateau closed, brother and sister moved to a rink in Venice. When that went out of business, their mother got up at 3:30 every morning and drove them 75 miles one way to Sun Blades in Clearwater. There they skated for a few hours until their mother drove them back to Venice and dropped them off in time for school.
But "we never pushed the kids,'' says Laurie Andrews, who tends bar at a Venice tavern. "I told every coach they ever had that it had to be fun first and if it wasn't fun, they shouldn't do it.''
Shawna eventually outgrew her brother. She joined Disney on Ice while he switched to the newly opened Ellenton rink and continued his training. To help pay for coaching, Barrett taught younger skaters, sold nachos at the snack bar and ran the Zamboni.
In 2004, Barrett won the national junior pairs competition but he was without a partner when Denney arrived. They briefly teamed up two years later; then Denney, her mother and her sister Haven, also a competitive skater, moved to Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
The separation proved too great, and in 2008, the family reunited in Pasco. The first day back at Ellenton, Denney met up with Barrett and the two "did some things'' — Denney's way of describing the dramatic lifts and heart-stopping throw jumps in which she is flung high into the air and rotates three times before landing.
"Caydee is fearless; she has nerves of steel,'' says Lyndon Johnston, one of the couple's three coaches. "Jeremy is one of the best lifters, and he gives Caydee confidence.''
Last year, the pair were second in the national championships and ninth at the worlds, a respectable finish given how little they had skated together. Then it was back to Florida with a suddenly realistic goal.
Win the U.S. championship and a berth on the 2010 Olympics team.
One goal down
Even before the music ended Jan. 16, the crowd in Spokane was on its feet. "That's how you do it!'' exclaimed NBC commentator Sandra Bezic, a former pairs champ herself, as Denney and Barrett completed the final spin of a flawless program.
In the audience, Bryan Denney saw his cell phone light up with congratulatory texts from co-workers back at the dealership in Ocala. Laurie Andrews, who couldn't afford to go to Spokane to see her son, was at home in Venice crying so hard that daughter Shawna finally yelled at her to stop.
Also watching in tears was Barrett's first coach, Phipson. The performance gave him "a wonderful feeling of ecstasy,'' as he puts it. Still, he wishes the pair had another year together before facing the strong German, Russian and Chinese teams at the Olympics.
"They are excellent now, but they'll be fantastic a year from now,'' Phipson says. "The height in the triple throw jump can be bigger and higher. There's a slight flaw in the flying camel and the speed going around.''
The morning after they returned to Florida, DeeDee Denney hoped to take it easy. But her daughter, who hasn't had time to get her license, insisted she get up early and drive her to practice.
At Ellenton they found hundreds of people waiting under banners that proclaimed "Home of the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Champions and Olympians.'' For three days straight, 1,000 spectators jammed the bleachers of the once-bankrupt rink to watch Denney and Barrett, Evora and Ladwig practice lifts, jumps and spins.
Then came hours of fitness training and, of course, interviews:
Can the United States win its first pairs medal in 22 years? "Probably not,'' says Jim Peterson, who coaches both teams. "But we can start climbing back to the podium.''
Does Denney, a Twilight and Harry Potter fan who takes online high school courses, regret not having a more normal childhood? "There are some things I do miss, but it's not every day you get to skate and do what we do.''
Do Barrett and Evora find it hard to compete and also live together? "When we're on the ice, it's business,'' Barrett says. "Off ice, we support each other.''
Though less in the spotlight, Evora and Ladwig have their own media-friendly stories. Growing up in New York City, Evora had so many bruises from skating falls that her schoolteachers thought she was abused. Now 25, she moved to Florida eight years ago to partner with Ladwig, but fell in love with Barrett.
The 29-year-old Ladwig, who learned to skate on a pond behind his North Dakota home, used a college fund to pay for his coaching. In 2002, he was a volunteer at the Salt Lake City Olympics and marvels that "this time I'll be inside the boards instead of outside.'' Married to a Floridian, he has an infant son.
On Monday, all four skaters leave for the Olympics. Laurie Andrews, who once drove 1,500 miles to Lake Placid, N.Y., to see her son compete, says her customers have offered to help pay the airfare to Vancouver. The Denneys will be there, too, remembering how it all began with a tiny pair of roller skates.
"You never really think in terms of her being an Olympic star,'' Bryan Denney says of his eldest daughter. "You just see that they like what they're doing, they enjoy going to competitions and they come back and work even harder. You just continue on the path and lo and behold, she's on the Olympic team.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com