Olympian Denney ready to melt hearts
ELLENTON - It's her morning ritual. When Caydee Denney, 16, awakens at her Wesley Chapel home, she studies a calendar on her bedroom wall. Five days to go! Then she'll be in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, proudly marching in the Opening Ceremony, probably looking around with wide-eyed wonder. "The reality of it hasn't hit me yet," she said. Soon, the eyes of a nation will be fixed on her. Denney and her partner, Sarasota's Jeremy Barrett, are the first native Floridians to win the U.S. pairs figure-skating national championship and advance to the Olympics. Just 18 months after they began skating together, Denney and Barrett electrified the national-event crowd Jan. 16 at Spokane, Wash., in a daring program filled with power, grace and speed.Make no mistake, they are Olympic underdogs. Americans haven't won a medal in pairs competition since 1988. "But Caydee and Jeremy love the crowd - and the crowd loves them," said Jim Peterson, their coach and choreographer who trains them at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in Manatee County. "They have something special. Caydee has a beautiful physicality. She draws you in. She has an amazing future." For now, Denney seems more interested in her immediate future. "As soon as this is all done, when everything settles down, I am so getting my driver's license," Denney said. Gold? Silver? Bronze? No, she's thinking red. "My mom said I could get a car if I made the world team - and I haven't forgotten!" Denney said, giggling. "I wanted a red convertible Solara. A few months ago, I saw a red Lexus and I said, 'Ooooh, I want that one.' I'm excited." These are the moments when Caydee Denney isn't so much America's Next Skating Sweetheart. She's just a teenager. She adores Tim Tebow and Rafael Nadal. She's a Harry Potter fan. She wants to become a dental hygienist. She loves the beach, hanging out with friends, watching movies and going to Busch Gardens. She is completing her high school requirements online and is planning for college. "She's sweet and she has a big heart," said Denney's mother, DeeDee. "She's very driven and a bit of a perfectionist in everything she does." Then she added with a laugh, "Except, maybe, in cleaning her room." "Really, I'm just an ordinary girl," said Denney, who grew up in Ocala, then moved with her family to Pasco County four years ago. But her accomplishments? Her improbable path to this Olympic moment? Extraordinary. From rollers to blades Skating is in Denney's blood. Roller skating. Her maternal grandmother went to the national championships. Her mother, a Florida native, was a two-time national champion. Her father, Bryan, originally from Anderson, Ind., was a 10-time national champion and twice made the world team, winning the men's singles bronze medal at Tokyo in 1984. "We were roller skaters," said Denney's mother, who met her husband at a national event and competed with him in pairs before their marriage in 1992. "It never even occurred to us to try the ice. I grew up in Florida, and Bryan's family had moved to Florida (Daytona Beach). There was no ice." So when Caydee was born? Guess what? Well before age 2, not long after learning to walk, she was a regular at the roller rink, Skate Mania in Ocala, where her parents coached the sport. Her first costume was created from a Cabbage Patch doll outfit. "I wouldn't get out there without pink wheels," Denney said. From the beginning, she was fearless - and ultra-talented. So was her younger sister, Haven. "The roller rink was like their playpen," their mother said. "It was a family thing. Caydee was following my path, like I had followed my mother's path." Denney, who became the national juvenile roller champion, found ice skating by accident at age 9. During a trip to Orlando to visit Bryan's vacationing parents, a rainy day spoiled the family's plan for outdoor fun. They happened upon an ice-skating rink - a place that no longer exists - along International Drive. Denney, who had been entranced by Tara Lipinski's Olympic performance on television, begged to try the ice. "I put on the skates, took off on the ice and, well, here I am today," Denney said. "I took off and I guess I never looked back." There were some awkward moments. For a time, Denney tried to juggle roller skating, which is not an Olympic sport, and ice skating. There are basic-skill similarities, but the techniques are largely different. She was forced to choose. It was decided by a dream. She wanted to be like Lipinski, who won gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Denney, then 4, pretended she was Tara, standing on the couch and asking her parents to place a gold medal around her neck. She selected blades over rollers. Denney's younger sister eventually chose the same route. And with that, the family's balancing act began. The long and winding road The Denney family lived in Ocala, where Bryan worked as a sales manager for DeLuca Toyota, the family-owned dealership. The closest ice rink - the one with sufficient facilities and coaching to cater to an Olympic hopeful - was in Ellenton. That meant a 21/2-hour drive - one way - three times a week. "How often was I in the car with Caydee and Haven, wondering what we all were doing?" Denney's mother said. "For a while, it was every day." Wildwood ... Bushnell ... Brooksville ... Dade City ... Brandon ... Riverview ... Gibsonton ... Apollo Beach. "I pretty much had those exits memorized," she said, chuckling at a two-year, back-and-forth odyssey. But deep down, she knew the sacrifices were worth the price. After all, she had lived it herself years earlier when her mother carted her from Ocala to Orlando and back for prime roller-skate competition. She squeezed in homework during the ride, sometimes using a flashlight to study her lessons in the back seat after dark. "So I can do it for my girls, too," Denney's mother said. The family experimented with a brief move to Colorado and a different ice-skating venue - with Bryan remaining in Ocala, trying to sell the house in a difficult financial market - but that didn't work. They returned to Florida. Then came Plan B. What was between Ocala and Ellenton? "Literally, that's how we came to move to Wesley Chapel," Denney's father said. Bryan travels north to work - about an hour and 15 minutes. Mother and daughters travel south for ice-skating practice - about an hour and 15 minutes. When it's not a late night at the dealership, he makes it home for dinner, sometimes at the family's favorite sushi restaurant. "We're accustomed to a hectic lifestyle," Denney's mother said. "It's going to be really different when the girls go off to college one day. We won't know how to act. But we wouldn't trade these memories for the world. It has been an adventure since the day Caydee was born." Actually, she wasn't Caydee. She was supposed to be Taylor. "Then right before the birth, my mother and I got this idea," Denney's mother said. "She was Carol. I'm DeeDee. So we called her Cadee, putting the two names together. Spelled just like that, 'C-A-D-E-E.' But we pronounced it 'Cay-dee.' "Our priest, very Irish, kept pronouncing it 'Cad-ee,' emphasis on the 'Cad.' And we would correct him, saying, 'No, it's Cay-dee.' He said, 'You're not spelling it that way.' So when she was 4 months old, just before her baptism, we added a 'Y' to her first name. C-A-Y-D-E-E. I guess it took us a while to get her name straight." Now everyone will remember the name - and the look. She loves to perform Watching Denney practice, you witness a picturesque ice skater, a powerful athlete - and a performer. With flashing blond hair and expressive eyes, standing barely 5 feet tall, she has unmistakable presence and energy. "An absolute dynamo - with nerves of steel," said Lyndon Johnston, one of her coaches. Peterson has orchestrated routines for the Denney-Barrett team and selected the music, two classical pieces - Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" for the short program and Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade" for the longer free-skate program. They are meant to set the mood for power and drama, potentially leaving the crowd breathless and excited by the end of the performance. "The music is the secret weapon, and the goal is always to have the crowd engaged and interested from the start," Peterson said. "You've got to understand. People outside of our sport only take notice of us every four years (during the Olympics). Stars are made in a very short time with a stunning, impactful performance. "Caydee could be one of those skaters, like Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi or Brian Boitano, who brings enormous attention to the sport. She's just starting out. But I see that potential." Peterson noticed it almost immediately. "When we started Caydee in basic pairs training, within three or four days, she was doing things that it took others 12 years to perfect," Peterson said. "You're always looking for this type of person with those intangible qualities. "She loves to fly. She loves to be thrown in the air. She has no fear whatsoever. On the ice, for those few minutes, she is completely and totally herself." Denney also has brought out the best in Barrett. Born in Sarasota and now living in Venice, Barrett has trained at Ellenton practically since the facility's inception in 1999. He's part of the landscape, and has worked practically every job, including running the snack bar and the Zamboni machine. Barrett trained briefly with Denney before her move to Colorado. Upon Denney's return to Florida, they were reunited. The ever-elusive chemistry, always sought by pairs teammates, came naturally. "We just clicked," said Barrett, 25, who is dating University of South Florida student Amanda Evora, part of the other Ellenton-based pairs team (along with Mark Ladwig) headed to the Olympics. "Caydee is 16, but she doesn't act 16. She's very mature, very polished. "She definitely has the whole package going on. People love watching her. They respond to her." Now it's time for a discovery by the nation, and maybe the world. Peterson said there are no expectations for a placement against traditional powers such as China, Russia and Germany. The Denney-Barrett team, which finished ninth in last year's world championships and is gearing for a high finish at March's world event in Italy, might be positioning itself for a medal in the 2014 Games. Then again, nothing in Denney's personality suggests an attitude of settling or waiting for the inevitable. She practically crackles with urgency. "There's nothing like being out there, feeding off the crowd, seeing everybody on their feet, getting to that moment and knowing that you did it, you actually did it, and it was something you've been working for all these years," Denney said. Five days to go until the Opening Ceremony. The short program begins on Valentine's Day. "No question about it," Peterson said. "Caydee will steal your heart away."
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.