The Kids Who Would Be Olympians

It is always thrilling to watch the figure-skating competition at the Winter Olympics: the speed, the grace, the way the men and women skaters make it look so easy and natural. And when the slow-mo camera zooms in on spins and jumps, it seems like the skaters defy gravity.

But the road to the Olympics is a long and difficult one. It takes years of dedication and practice. And only the tiniest fraction of skaters ever get there. Two young skaters who someday hope to compete in the Olympics spoke with the Monitor about their lives on and off the ice.

WHEN most junior high students are still in bed, or just sitting down to breakfast before the school day starts, Michelle Cho and Derrick Delmore have already laced up their ice skates and are at the rink practicing spins and jumps. Michelle leaves her house at 5:30 in the morning and is skating by 6:00. Derrick is out the door at 6:30. By 7:00, ice is sparkling on the blades of his skates.

Needless to say, Derrick and Michelle love to skate.

Getting up early each morning is no chore at all for either of them. Both young skaters, Michelle (age 12) and Derrick (age 13) competed last month in the novice division of the United States Figure Skating Championships in Orlando, Fla.

Seeing them in competition, though, where each cuts an impressive figure, is only part of their story. For every minute they are on the ice at the National Championships there were hours and days and weeks of practice. For both of them, each day is packed with things to do.

During an interview, however, neither of them is so busy that they forget to express their thanks to their parents. It is mom and dad who make sure they get back and forth from skating practice to school each day and keep up with homework, who travel with them to skating competitions, cheer them on when they win, and encourage them if they fall.

Michelle skates at the Orange County Figure Skating Club in California and lives in Costa Mesa, Calif. Derrick skates at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria, Va., and lives in Fort Washington, Md.

Michelle knew she wanted to be a skater when she was seven years old. She saw "Walt Disney's World on Ice" and that was it. At the time she lived in New Orleans. She became so involved in skating that when the local ice rink closed, her family moved to California and enrolled her in a private school and a skating club. They even hired a private tutor to help her with her school work (she gets straight A's). Her favorite subjects are math and reading. "I read all the time when I am not skating or in scho ol," she says.

Michelle is like a butterfly when she skates. Her spins look effortless, as if she were on a cloud rather than ice. An average day of skating for her means five hours of practice. And though she weighs just over 90 pounds - with her skates on - she has a black belt in tae kwon do, a Korean form of martial arts. Ask Michelle why she takes tae kwon do, and she explains that it helps her develop coordination, stamina, and balance. It also gives her a better sense of her Korean heritage.

Her skating coach, John Nicks, is confident she has the talent to be a national champion. Mr. Nicks is recognized as one of the leading US figure skating coaches.

In addition to Michelle, one of his "star pupils" is Christopher Bowman, the current US national champion. "I am glad [Michelle] came to Orlando so that she can get the experience to skate in the main arena, see and experience the atmosphere and the environment she'll be competing in one day," Nicks says. Later that day Michelle won first place in Novice Ladies Free Skating.

Derrick's father drives him to the practice rink five days a week where he practices for 1 hour and 45 minutes before another drive to school. As soon as he gets on the ice, "Derrick is all business," says his skating coach Shirley Hughes. His specialty is artfully making the difficult double and triple jumps expected of men in figure-skating competition, she says. He placed fourth in Novice Mens Free Skating at Orlando.

Practice for Derrick normally consists of two 45-minute "patches" or sessions. In the first one he skates a program that he and his coach have choreographed. This is called free skating. In the second, he skates a set of specific maneuvers or figures to improve his skills.

When asked how he became interested in skating, Derrick gives the credit to his father, John Delmore, a Vietnam veteran. Skating started out as a family project at first. His father wanted something that he, Derrick, and Derrick's mother, Yvonne, could do in the winter time to keep in shape. After the first three weeks of just skating for exercise, one of the instructors at their skating club came up to his father and told him his son was so good he should have lessons.

Like Michelle, Derrick has more interests than just skating. The week right after skating competition in Orlando, he had to get back to the Washington area for a second competition, this time in classical piano. When he finishes a day at school, Derrick comes home for two hours of piano practice, then homework. His coach says she looks forward to the day when he will compete at nationals and skate to a musical score that he composed himself.

If Derrick travels to either a skating or piano competition, he has to be even more organized than he usually is. Both his school and his parents require that he get all of his classroom and homework assignments in advance. Most of the time this works out, but "sometimes teachers don't always give me all the assignment," he says. Then he has to scramble to make up the work when he returns. Given his 4.0 grade point average (straight A's), it looks like he more than catches up.

His school performance, like Michelle's, just proves something that coach Nicks says is not uncommon among the more committed skaters. They "have meaningful activity for a good portion of the day. It gives students great inner poise," so they tend to do very well academically, he says.

Competitive skating is not cheap, and both Michelle's and Derrick's parents make sacrifices so that their children can get the practice time skating that they need. "The average piece of ice [at a skating rink] costs $7 for 40 minutes," says Derrick's coach. It's more in the Los Angeles area. And competitive skaters like Michelle and Derrick who have their own individual coaches will pay $18 to $20 for a 20-minute lesson, says coach Hughes. When a skater gets to the national level, a 20-minute choreograp hed session can cost as much as $90.

In conversations with Michelle and Derrick immediately after an early practice, both tell how their relationship with their coach is special. It gives each of them the undivided attention of an adult who is not their parent but who not only cares about how they skate, but how they are maturing as individuals. They both know that not many kids their age have such a special relationship.

How do they handle the pressure at the big meets?

Both Derrick and Michelle say they do not let it bother them when they skate in competition. For Derrick, the support he gets from his parents is the single biggest reason he doesn't let the pressure bother him. "My parents are really supportive and helpful. They've been there for me. I'm really grateful," he says. "I skate to do my best and don't think about the judges." Michelle echoes Derrick, and adds that she loves to skate. Pressure doesn't bother her when she is doing something she loves, she says .

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