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Part Two

Ice Dreams

In its four years in Richmond, SkateNation has developed about 100 new competitive figure skaters, Smith says. The Richmond Figure Skating Club, a member club of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, has signed up 160 members in less than five years. Most of these skaters are children who had their first ice skating experience at a public skating session at SkateNation.

"Our focus has been getting them in through public skating, then exposing them to our Learn to Skate program," Smith says, referring to the rink's $89, eight-week program for skating novices.

Kids who show potential through Learn to Skate and who are interested in learning more about competitive figure skating are encouraged to train with one of Skate-Nation's more than 20 coaches.

Then there's SkateNation's intensive eight-week figure-skating summer camp, which last year drew skaters from as far away as Florida, some who lived with their families in Winnebagos in the rink's parking lot just so they could spend as much time as possible on the ice.

When it gets to this point, Smith says, the coaches should start to educate their students and their parents about the great commitment it takes to excel in figure skating. "Not only is it a financial commitment, but it's a time commitment," he says. "... What we want to do is to continue to recruit people though our Learn to Skate program and someday have a Richmonder compete in the U.S. Nationals or the Olympics."

Parents such as Sandy Conigliaro know all too well what it takes to train a potential future Olympian. Her 6*-year-old son, Michael, skates four days a week (including three 6:30 a.m. lessons), in addition to his two hours of off-ice dance training and physical conditioning.

"He lives and he sleeps and he breaths ice skating," she says as she sips coffee, while anxiously watching her son practice waltz jumps out on the ice. "It's all he wants to do."

Michael, who is a triplet, began skating when Sandy brought the three children to Skate Nation for Learn to Skate. Michael's brother quit in the middle of the session, and his sister, Samantha, quit during the second session of the program. But Michael didn't want to leave the ice.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasOlympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul practices her program while coach Valentin Nikolayev looks on. The presence of skaters such as Baiul adds to the rink's credibility and ability to attract other top-name skaters.Because Michael was one of the few boys interested in figure skating (most want to play ice hockey), Sandy was encouraged to allow Michael to develop his talent. But developing his talent is taking a toll.

Figure skating is expensive — $40 to $50 an hour for private lessons with coach Lisa Winn, and even more with Nikolayev, whom Michael skates with once a week; $400 a pop for a new pair of "middle-of-the-road" figure skates (and his feet keep growing); and more than $100 for one skating outfit can add up to about $1,000 a month. It can also be stressful for the whole family. Michael's siblings must spend many afternoons hanging around the skating rink as their brother takes his lessons. Mom or Dad, who own an auto repair shop, must get up early to get him to the rink by 6:30 a.m.

"We are looking for a new home, but we can't be too far away from the skating rink," Sandy says. " ... Our whole life is here. ... And he's only 6 years old. How many years do we have ahead of us if he keeps it up? But he has talent, and I can't take this away from him. This is all he wants to do."

Out on the ice, Michael executes a few waltz jumps with his tiny arms held at a perfect right angle from his body — the classic figure skater's stance. As his coach Winn skates backward in front of him, he listens intently to her animated instructions, his head cocked to the side in concentration. He tries the jump again and listens to Winn's critique. He is tireless, performing the same move over and over and over again.

On any given afternoon, SkateNation is filled with children who share Michael's determination and dream of someday skating in the Olympics. After all, they need only to look around them at skaters such as Bechke, Petrov and Baiul for inspiration to see that it can be done.

"Denis and Elena are such hard workers," says SkateNation's skating school director, Lea Rizer. "The kids see that they still train three hours a day, every day. They see that's what it takes to be Olympic champions."

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