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HELENE ELLIOTT

After their skate, the answer is yes

February 02, 2008|Helene Elliott

It wasn't part of their routine, and Rena Inoue was puzzled.

She and John Baldwin were taking their bows last Saturday after their finale at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, waving to the crowd as they had done hundreds of times.

But when she turned to face another section of St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, Baldwin wasn't beside her.

He was down on one knee, reaching for her hands.

"I thought at first he was tired or something," Inoue said. "I was looking at him like, 'What's going on?' "

Baldwin, her pairs partner since they clicked during a tryout at Paramount Iceland in 2000 and romantic interest the last six years, was asking her to marry him.

He didn't have a ring to dazzle her.

He had only the certainty that came to him that morning, that this was the moment to publicly declare his love for the woman who saved his career and illuminated his life.

"I just felt in my heart we were going to skate really well and we did, and I was going to take advantage of this opportunity," he said.

"Mostly, I don't want anyone else to get Rena. I found somebody that I really respect and love being with. It's so lucky that I found somebody like that."

And so the strapping, blond Baldwin, a son of Southern California, pledged his devotion to Inoue, a native of Hyougo, Japan, so fragile-looking at 4 feet 11 and 95 pounds yet strong enough to have conquered lung cancer 10 years ago.

Inoue, who is a fan of the Peanuts comic strip and thinks of herself as Woodstock to Baldwin's Snoopy, said yes.

First, she shed a few tears.

"I was thinking of what I went through, of course," she said this week, wearing a Peanuts sweat shirt in their Santa Monica home.

"This was our eighth nationals together, and when he proposed he told me how important I am in his life and everything. All of a sudden, everything we went through the last 7 1/2 years together, it got me, and that's why I started crying.

"We share not just so many good times but also bad things and anger. We share everything, happy or not. And we are still together, still competing. It's just amazing."

It's more than that.

"It's like a miracle," Baldwin said.

It doesn't matter that they finished second to Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker and didn't add to the U.S. titles they won in 2004 and in 2006.

They will still go to the world championships in Sweden in March and will be more confident as skaters and as a couple, their bond strengthened by the words they said at center ice after a performance they weren't sure they could pull off.

The U.S. competition was the first this season for Inoue, 31, and Baldwin, 34. Frustrated by a scoring system that stifles creativity and rewards ugly spins and exhausted by the grind of elite competition -- they placed seventh at the Turin Olympics and have gone to the world championships five times -- they skipped the Grand Prix circuit.

Instead, they performed in shows, mostly in Europe and Japan. No longer obligated to perform prescribed moves to pile up points and please judges, they rediscovered their love for skating.

"Sometimes you need to take a break and come back with more passion," Baldwin said.

To give themselves some options, they asked Philip Mills -- who had choreographed a show routine for them -- to design a short and long program they could use at the U.S. championships. They had only a few weeks to absorb what normally takes months.

"The first week, I was panicked," Baldwin said.

Inoue suggested they stop. "Because I totally saw Johnny's not enjoying it and that's why it was wrong," she said. "But our coach told me, 'If you guys can get through that first week, you'll be fine.' "

Even as they glued beads onto their costumes, they questioned their decision.

"We put it all on the line and we could have made fools of ourselves. It took a lot of guts," Baldwin said.

His 20th consecutive appearance at the U.S. championships in singles or pairs and 22nd overall was the most rewarding of all.

"All the show tours we did worked in a very positive way for us for these nationals," Inoue said. "It made us very tough skaters, that no matter what, how exhausted you are, when they announce your name you have to do your number."

They're too busy preparing for the Four Continents competition this month in Goyang City, South Korea, and the world championships to plan a wedding. Baldwin suggested a ceremony on the beach in Malibu, but Japan would be fine with him too.

Inoue wants no fuss on her big day.

"I feel bad for the people coming to it," she said. "Even though we say we don't need gifts or anything, they'll still do it. I feel like I'm wasting their money."

No frothy dress, either.

"I feel like I'm just a doll at the store in the showcase window," she said. "On top of that I'm so short. . . . Imagine all the material they'd have to cut to make it short enough for me."

Baldwin wants to give her a custom-made ring whose design would incorporate Snoopy and Woodstock, but Inoue is OK without a diamond on her finger.

"I don't need a ring," she said. "What he did for me at that moment was enough for me. He showed me his love and respect for me. It's not something you can buy."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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