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Forte could be dark horse at U.S. Champs

Injuries now in past, New Yorker is coming into her own

Joelle Forte, the 2009 U.S. Eastern Sectional senior ladies champion, attended the Darien Open, but as a coach rather than as a competitor.
Joelle Forte, the 2009 U.S. Eastern Sectional senior ladies champion, attended the Darien Open, but as a coach rather than as a competitor. (courtesy of Joelle Forte)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/16/2009) - With the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland just days away, the ladies' podium is almost impossible to predict.

Defending champion Mirai Nagasu, reigning world junior champ Rachael Flatt, 2007 world junior champ Caroline Zhang, and reigning U.S. bronze medalist Ashley Wagner are among the favorites. But Junior Grand Prix stars Becky Bereswill, Angela Maxwell and Alexe Gilles, and former U.S. World Team member Alissa Czisny have had good performances this season, and 2006 world champ Kimmie Meissner could make a timely return to form. And that's just scratching the surface of a deep and varied field.

Among the least known of the "dark horses" that could crack the top six is a 22-year-old Fordham University student whose only trip to the U.S. Championships was back in 2000 -- the last time the event was held in Cleveland.

"I have a lot of good memories of the city, and I really wanted to work hard and make it this year," said Joelle Forte, who placed ninth in novice ladies some nine years ago.

In a sport dominated by teenagers, Forte will be the oldest single lady competing. After failing to qualify for the U.S. Championships as a senior lady in four attempts, the Long Island native was not on too many skating radar screens. But new confidence and maturity, plus supportive coaches, helped Forte post impressive wins at both of her qualifying competitions this fall. After years of disappointment, including a premature retirement, her second trip to the big time is that much sweeter.

Most importantly, she heads into Cleveland with solid triple jumps, a relative rarity in these days of highly scrutinized edges and rotations.

"The difference between this year and last year is just being more comfortable and not thinking ahead too much," Forte said.

"Last season at Eastern [sectionals], my short was the best I ever skated, and I got the highest marks. Then, in my long, I popped both of my triple Salchows. I lost something like 13 points. As soon as I took off, I didn't pull in at all. To this day, I can't figure out how it happened, but it just made me work even harder for this year."

Forte, who studies psychology, still uses those flubbed jumps as special motivation.

"I just said, 'I'm never ever going to pop anything ever again.' I would rather go for it and fall," she explained. "I've trained so hard to be consistent and do the jumps with the music. It takes not being over-trained or under-trained. There has to be a good middle ground, and I think I've found it."

It's been a long time coming. Growing up in Merrick, N.Y., as the youngest child in a family of five children, Forte took up the sport at age four, after attending a roller-blading party with her older sister.

"The lady who had the party saw I was a good roller-blader and said I should take lessons," she remembered. "Since we live five minutes from the Newbridge Arena in Bellmore, my dad thought maybe I would do it on ice. So my parents took me, and that was it."

By age six, Forte attracted the attention of top coaches Peter Burrows and Mary Lynn Gelderman, who had guided the career of 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak. But after her trip to the 2000 U.S. Championships, injuries piled up and eventually sapped her competitive fire. She quit the sport at age 17.

"It was a lot of things put together," Forte said. "I had a really bad back injury. It never got to a point when it didn't hurt; I couldn't push all the way. And then I was just burned out and wanted to stop.

"But after a year and a half, I knew there was still something inside of me that could push even further, so that is really what drove me to come back at age 19."

For coaching, Forte turned to Zayak, who made a comeback of her own in 1994 at age 28, and Dmitri Gromov, who competed for the Soviet Union back in the 1980's and placed fourth at the 1989 European Championships. Representing the Skating Club of New York, she's hard at work at her longtime home rink and also trains in Syosset, N.Y., and Hackensack, N.J.

"[Zayak and Gromov] have been extremely supportive, even the first two years after I came back when I wasn't having the best competitions," Forte said. "They've been there with me through the ups and downs, and good and bad. It helps a lot to have coaches who have been through all the competition, the stress and the training."

Zayak, who initially retired after winning a bronze medal at the 1984 worlds, placed fourth at the 1994 U.S. Championships after 10 years away from eligible competition.

"When you're 17, 18, 19, that age bracket is so hard," she said.

"I think it's only after you turn 20 do you really come into your own and wrap your head around all that's going on with your body and your mind. When I was 15 or 16, I never missed a jump, but, after that, problems started. Then, when I was a little older, I understood my body structure, and could train with no pressure from parents or coaches."

Forte, who hopes to some day use her education and experience as a sports psychologist, agreed that in her case, getting older means getting better.

"Experience does play a big part," she said. "When you're younger, you just kind of go out and enjoy yourself. When you get to 17 or 18 and you've done good competitions, they put more pressure on you. I think I've passed that. This season, it's been more about just going out and doing what I've done in practice."

Having a life outside of the rink also helps. Four days a week, Forte takes the Long Island Railroad to Fordham's Manhattan campus, where she began studying in 2006. A new semester started this week.

"I have two different worlds, and they balance each other out," she said. "I can't do just one thing. When I'm [at Fordham], I concentrate on school, and when I'm at the rink, it's all skating. Some people think about school when they should be thinking about skating, or vice versa, but for me, it works."

Impressive qualifying results aside, whether Forte can mount a credible challenge to younger, more established skaters has yet to be seen. With solid jumps in hand, in the weeks leading up to Cleveland she and her coaches have focused on improving the speed and performance quality in both her short program, created by two-time Olympic champion Evgeni Platov to music from the Mr. and Mrs. Smith soundtrack, and her free skate to Puccini's Madame Butterfly, choreographed by Marina Kudryatseva.

"My main goal is to skate two clean programs," Forte emphasized. "I have no control over the judging, and I have no control over how anyone else skates. If I can do what I did this fall, I will be thrilled. That's the only thing I can control."

Zayak, who won her own national title in 1981, is a bit more emphatic.

"If Joelle skates well, I really hope she does get the marks. She has worked so hard on her choreography and presentation. Her jumps are so consistent. It's like my story all over again. She wants it so badly, and I want it for her so badly."