U.S. Champs are homecoming for Pennington

Reunited with Heiss Jenkins, skater is now thinking big

Parker Pennington and more than a dozen friends will hit the ice in "Skate for Life."
Parker Pennington and more than a dozen friends will hit the ice in "Skate for Life." (Paul Harvath)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/24/2009) - Parker Pennington is proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. You can go home again.

The 24-year-old skater, who trained for a decade in the Cleveland area before leaving in 2003 for rinks in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Virginia, brought the crowd to its feet Friday night at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships with a thrilling short program. After finishing a disappointing 11th at last year's U.S. Championships, he stands third going in to Sunday's free skate.

"I felt like I really fed off the crowd," Pennington said. "It was absolutely amazing. I must have had 40 or 50 people in the audience that came to watch me. I hope my mom watched, but she never likes to watch me skate -- too nervous. My dad and brother were in the audience."

The personable skater wasn't always such a showman, but recently he's learned to cut loose with Nikolai Morozov's choreography to flamenco selections.

"I've really worked a lot at letting my performance come out and my personality to shine through," he said. "I'm doing a lot of different things since coming back to Cleveland -- some artwork, some show production -- that [have] really helped me grow as a person."

The most important thing he's done is reconnect with his old coach, Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic champion, as well as co-coach Roberta Mitchell.

Pennington and Heiss Jenkins have already made U.S. figure skating history together. He is the only male skater to earn U.S. titles as a juvenile (1995), intermediate (1996), novice (1998) and junior (2001). Still, he's never competed at worlds, or even an ISU Senior Grand Prix event, and his highest placement at the U.S. Championships at the senior level was sixth place in 2003.

Middle-of-the-road results, and the feeling he needed a fresh look at his choreography and artistry, led Pennington to leave Heiss Jenkins. He journeyed to Colorado Springs, Colo., then Virginia, and worked with other respected coaches, but success at the senior level continued to elude him.

"It's hard, but it's part of life," he said of those years. "It taught me a lot about digging down and finding other reasons to skate."

By the summer of 2008, he'd had enough, so he traveled to a summer competition in Pennsylvania where Heiss Jenkins was coaching to ask if he could return to the Serpentini Arena at Winterhurst in Lakewood, Ohio, to work with her again. She said, "Sure, be there in August, and we'll start again."

"She has such an enthusiasm about the sport, and I love working with her," Pennington said. "I think in that sense I have come back full circle, and I couldn't imagine a better situation than what I'm in now."

Soon after returning to Cleveland, Pennington solved another problem.

"I recently was diagnosed with vertigo, which was what [two-time U.S. champion] Scott Davis was diagnosed with as well years ago," he said. "It was a true wake-up call for me. ... I chose to see it as a challenge. I have since come to realize I have had it for years and had no idea. Since discovering it, I have made numerous corrections, both on the ice and off, to battle it, and my results this season show that."

Known for his fast spins, Pennington uses physical therapy and a system of spotting landmarks in arenas to help him regain his balance.

Pennington figures vertigo is something he can overcome, especially when he considers his dad, Larry, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (MD), a neuromuscular disease, back in 2001.

Parker produced his first "Skate for Life" benefit in Newington, Conn., last year and raised $21,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. More than 1,000 people attended the event.

"My dad fights every day to let MD limit him as little as possible," Pennington told last summer. "With that as an example, it would be hard for me to walk away and quit short of my goal."

With Heiss Jenkins and Mitchell in his corner, plus the support of his family, Pennington is even thinking about the 2010 Olympics.

"It was definitely a tough road the last few years, but I feel I have to give it my best shot," he said. "For the first time, I'm starting to really believe in my abilities."