One more year for several veterans
Delmore, Roth and more couldn't give it up yet
|Angie Lien will probably head back to coaching in Duluth, Minn., after this week in Saint Paul. (Michelle Harvath)|
In a sport heavily populated by athletes in their young teens through early 20's, the elder statesman here in Saint Paul, Minn., two-time U.S. pairs champ John Baldwin, 34, is competing in his 20th consecutive U.S. Championship, and 22nd overall.
After a lengthy singles career, Baldwin has enjoyed tremendous success teaming up with Rena Inoue. In 2006, they landed the first throw triple Axel in Olympic competition. But with financial rewards few, and jobs and adult life beckoning, what drives others to keep saying, "one more year"?"
For 29-year-old Derrick Delmore, the competition in Saint Paul is his 18th consecutive U.S. Championship. The skater made his first appearance in Minneapolis in 1991, placing 10th in novice pairs with Alix Clymer. Since then, except for a brief period in 1996, he has focused on his singles career. His highest finish was fifth in 1998. "While I'm young enough, and as long as I'm healthy, I want to keep skating," Delmore, who holds a B.A. from Stanford University, said.
"It is truly my passion."
After a sixth-place finish at last year's event -- including what he called his "best free skate ever" -- Delmore planned to hang up his competition skates. But after he performed in the skating musical "Cold as Ice" at Long Island's Gateway Playhouse last spring, things took a different turn.
"Since I had to stay in fairly good shape for the show, I went into the summer pretty fit," he recalled. "I thought I might try skating pairs, but at that point, it was a little late to find a partner.
"Then, [U.S. Skating's] international committee approached me to compete at Oberstdorf [for the Nebelhorn Trophy] in September, since one of the other skaters was injured. I went to the Golden West competition in California, so they could monitor me, and placed second there. Once I did that, I felt it didn't make sense to retire."
Delmore had a bye to the 2008 Eastern Sectional Championships and took third place in a tough field. That won him a ticket to Saint Paul.
"One thing led to another, and I just got on the plane," he laughed.
Is this his last rodeo? After last season, Delmore knows better than to make any announcements, and "Cold as Ice" may take up much of his time in the coming months.
"Performing in the play was amazing," he said. "I had a wonderful time collaborating with the actors and stage directors. I was exposed to this world I had never experienced before.
"Working with [the show's star] Oksana Baiul was great; she's a very dramatic person, and every night she stepped on the stage and was just so 'on.'"
Delmore and Baiul may be returning for an encore later this year.
"The playwright, Frank D'Agostino, and people on the production side are talking to investors and different playhouses to see who might be interested," Delmore said. "The time and place have yet to be determined, but it might be later this year."
But competitive dreams die hard. Delmore, who recently moved from the Washington, D.C., area to L.A., where he trains at the East West Ice Palace in Artesia, Calif., now thinks of reviving his pairs career.
"I'm definitely inspired by John Baldwin," he said. "Having competed against him in singles for so many years and seeing him do so well in pairs is a huge motivation to me. I've had pairs experience in the past, and maybe this is an avenue I need to pursue. I don't want to walk away from the sport with any regrets."
Minnesotan Angie Lien, who placed 13th with a solid performance in the ladies short program yesterday, won't win any medals here in Saint Paul. But for the 27-year-old graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the lure of ending her competitive career in front of a near-hometown crowd was too strong to resist.
"I still love to skate and compete; I love the challenges it all brings," Lien, who trained two hours north of Saint Paul in Duluth for most of her career, said.
"I was just drawn back one more year, because it's so awesome to skate in front of friends and family." This week marks Lien's fifth trip to the U.S. Championships; her first, in 1996, took place when ladies' leader Mirai Nagasu was less than three years old.
Lien's best finish in seniors was 14th place in 1999. To prepare for her qualifying events, Lien packed up and moved to Colorado Springs in June. She created a new free program (to an orchestral version of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir") with Tom Dixon and worked with a new coach, Damon Allen, to polish her movements.
"We've been working on consistency and my program components scores," Lien, who placed fourth at the 2008 Midwestern Sectional Championships, said. "My transitions have gotten better, and the interpretation mark has also improved. I've definitely stepped it up a little bit."
The skater left not only home and family, but a growing student base in her new career as a coach. It's likely she will return to Duluth after competing in Saint Paul.
"Uprooting myself for four or five months and leaving my students was hard, but it's something I wanted to do, and I just said, 'here we go,'" she recalled. "When I'm done competing, I do possibly want to step back into coaching."
Right now, Lien is enjoying her final moment in the competitive sun.
"I probably have about 20 or more people here cheering me on," she said.
"One of them asked me if I have a placement goal. No, I don't. Even if I have good performances, I know a lot of other skaters have bigger tricks than I do. Worrying about my scores is not why I'm here."
Stephanie Roth, who placed 18th in the ladies' short yesterday, is making her fifth trip to the U.S. Championships and her fourth in the senior event. Her highest placement was 16th in 2000.
Like Delmore, the 25-year-old Roth, who has an associate's degree from New Jersey's Brookdale Community College, had planned to retire last season.
"In 2007, I was away from nationals, but competed at the World University Games in Torino," she said. "That was the whole reason I pushed through that season."
Roth, who placed 10th, called the experience "my Olympics. I got off the ice, turned to my coach, Steven Rice, and said, 'Well, I guess that was it.' But deep in my head, I didn't really want to retire without another trip to nationals."
In 2006, Roth skated disappointing programs at the U.S. Championships en route to an 18th-place finish.
"I was injured, and it was awful," she recalled. "My dream was to finish my career with a strong performance, just have a great week and take it all in. Instead, I was miserable."
That dream kept her training at The Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., under long-time coach Rice. To help pay for this season, she picked up a part-time job at a catering company down the street from her gym.
"I went back and forth," she said. "I kept thinking, 'Am I strong enough? Can I get through the competition?' I live by the Jersey shore, and it was hard. Most people work and then hit the beach; I could only go on weekends.
"Finally, it was too late to audition for Disney or any of the cruise ships, so I knew I would keep going."
There was another long-standing issue. At 5'8", Roth is physically larger than many of her competitors, with the body of a mature woman rather than a young teen.
"I wish I could tell you it hasn't been a problem, but I've been scrutinized for it," she said. "I don't like it. If my weight really was an issue, I never would have been able to land my jumps. And if I were skinny, I don't think I could have lasted this long. I would have had more injuries."
At 2008 Eastern Sectionals, Roth placed fourth, defeating younger, more highly touted skaters to grab a qualifying spot.
"I knew Easterns this year would be the hardest ever," she said. "I just kept doing what I could do and tried to stay positive. I'm glad it played out in my favor, but it could have gone either way."
The skater, who has become a fan favorite over the years, is known for her unique choreography, especially in her self-choreographed Pirates of the Caribbean free skate. "I'm not out there on the ice in a pink dress. That's not me; I'm not comfortable with it," she said. "My choices in music are darker and stronger.
"I figured if I was going to skate this year, I would use music I love. I've always been fascinated by books and stories about pirates, so I'm using music from the entire film trilogy."
Roth said Saint Paul is definitely her last hurrah.
"I've already put a video audition tape together and sent it to some casting directors," she said. "I'm ready for the next step. I want to do shows; I need some new challenges."