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Young Skaters Push Past Pain, Cost for Shot at Olympics

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Olympic fever's hit hard at the Northbrook Sports Center. The ice arena draws aspiring figure and speed skaters from all over Chicago's northwest suburbs. The phone's been ringing off the hook since word got out that three Olympic speed skaters trained here, and two other Chicago-area natives took the gold. As WBEZ's Lynette Kalsnes reports, this is where some local skaters and their families find out what it takes to turn an Olympic dream into a reality.

A half dozen children are tottering across the ice at the Northbrook Sports Center.

SOUND: Remember, march, march, glide, and turn with our two feet, making a shape of a candy cane?

You can barely see the kids' tiny heads poking above the sides of the rink.

CHILD: I did it!
COACH: You did?

Northbrook skating director Laila Schlesinger says so many kids want lessons these days, she's had to add two classes.

SCHLESINGER: I think it's just a little girl's or a little boy's dream, when you first step on the ice. You're gliding around and you think, 'Oh my gosh, I can do this.'

Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek's gold medal is fueling that excitement. Fourteen-year-old skater Carina Glastris has shared the ice with him. She says she was feeling the tension when he competed on TV.

CARINA: It's like you see somebody you've known and you've skated with and you think, wow, this is possible, it's definitely possible.

Carina has a pretty solid idea of what those odds really are. Thousands of kids skate competitively. Only 15 people skate for the U.S. in the Olympic Games.

JENSEN: The best you can do is take it day by day and see how they progress.

Coach Lars Jensen has coached kids who've made it to the senior nationals. He says he doesn't have to tell an aspiring skater when to quit dreaming of reaching the top levels in the sport.

JENSEN: And as they progress or maybe don't progress as much as they want, I think they become realistic. There are also kids who keep progressing, and they can sense if they really put a lot into it, there might be a chance.


15-year-old Sara Sarkisian is heading to practice at another rink, the North Shore Ice Arena, just a couple of miles away. She's dragging a tote filled with skate gear, a backpack of books, and her lunch.

SARA: It's like my second home, you know.

Sara isn't kidding. She spends all day here, doing schoolwork in between skating sessions. Her parents have decided to home school her because of her intense skating schedule.

Sara practices three hours a day. Then there's Pilates, yoga and jogging; all part of her training.


Coaches suggest kids start between age 3 and 6, and if they're really serious about it, skate four times a week at age 7. But Sara didn't start until 9.

SARA: I really think that if I keep working hard I'll make it to the Olympics eventually. I think getting your jumps in and working really hard every single day will help.

Sara's little sister, Kristen, who's 7, started earlier. Her mom put her on the ice as soon as she was out of diapers.

KRISTEN: I started skating around. When I was 2 years old, I was cold and I just wanted to get off the ice, but now I get warmer because I'm older.

Kristen skates like the blades are attached to her legs. A coach tapes her jumps, then shows her how high she gets.

Coaching sound

Sara and Kristen's mom, Lisa Sarkisian, says ice time, lessons and travel add up to big bucks.

LISA SARKISIAN: We don't go out to restaurants, we don't go on vacations, I save everything for them to skate.

She says they've refinanced their home to help pay for skating.

LISA SARKISIAN: It's really hard. I just think the kids are little only once, even if I had to borrow money I would do it.


Out on the rink, 14-year-old Carina Glastris is in the middle of her daily three-hour workout. She's practicing jumps and other elements of ice dancing with her coach, Maria Jezak-Athey. Carina suddenly skates to the side of the rink.

JEZAK-ATHEY: You all right?
CARINA: My foot is numb.
JEZAK-ATHEY: Is it? OK, why don't you unlace it, rub it.

Carina reties her laces, and begins again. At this point, she's willing to give up her lunch and a free period to get in these practice sessions.

But her coach Maria Jezak-Athey knows that could change for some of these skaters. Like Carina, they're at that critical age when competitive skaters decide whether to drop out. Puberty hits and then they have to deal with new emotions and growth spurts.

JEZAK-ATHEY: If they achieve something by the time they enter high school, they're in it through high school. If they haven't, they might say high school offers so many activities, so many things I can do, I don't want to skate anymore.

Some skaters realize they can't take the pressure. Others leave skating, miss it, and come back with a new commitment. Either way, Jezak-Athey says the sport teaches discipline, determination, a strong work ethic and the ability to perform.

JEZAK-ATHEY: And I think they learn early what it means to succeed and what it means to lose. If they do not know how to lose, they are not going to be very happy in life because life is not all about winning.

Jezak-Athey points to a skater who's had success. Danny O'Shea's flying around the rink hitting triples, even though he's trying out new boots; a painful process.

O'SHEA: Yeah, the ice is very hard, it's like falling on slippery concrete. But you start with small falls, and you get used to them. As you progress in your skating, when you start doing harder jumps, you take bigger falls, and I take some hard falls, but I'm used to it. I also played football when I was younger so I don't mind getting hit.

He skates 3 to 4 hours a day. He works out with a trainer, too.

O'SHEA: It's like a four and a half minute sprint while looking pretty and elegant and smiling. These sprinters can run really fast and have good cardio, but they don't have to look nice while they're doing it. I think that's the hardest part of it.

O'Shea says skating at this level's cost his family 50 grand a year. His father's put off retirement.  O'Shea acknowledges it's been difficult for his parents, but they've been supportive. It's been tough for him, too. He spent years going to bed at 9:00 in high school to make skating practice early the next morning.

O'SHEA: I never thought it wasn't worth it. It's so much fun out there on the ice. The feeling when you're doing triple jumps, it's the closest I think any human can get to flying.

The 19-year-old thinks he has the dedication to make the 2014 Olympics. O'Shea won nationals at the novice level two years ago, and he's still developing. He's starting to pairs skate, too.

He says a lot can happen in four years, for him, or any of the Olympic hopefuls.

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