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United, They Skate

WINTER OLYMPICS

Naomi Lang and ice partner Peter Tchernyshev represent two faces of the U.S.

February 12, 2002|PHILIP HERSH | TRIBUNE OLYMPIC BUREAU

SALT LAKE CITY — Naomi Lang stood on the field in Rice-Eccles Stadium, fighting tears as members of Utah's five Native American tribes danced and sang in front of her during the opening ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics. What she saw transported her back to a childhood of eating Indian fry bread and watching the stomp dance and the grass dance performed by members of her tribe, the Karuk, in Northern California.

Lang's ice-dance partner, Peter Tchernyshev, sat with members of the U.S. Olympic team in the end zone behind her, moved by the pride of the Native American tribal leaders as they rode horses across the ice surface installed on the field. What he saw transported him back to a childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he had learned about Indians by reading James Fenimore Cooper and Mayne Reid in Russian.

Tchernyshev also found himself moved by a feeling he did not expect would be so strong.

"I was overwhelmed with patriotism," he said. "I never could imagine I would have already so much pride in this country for all the opportunities it has given me."

Until then, Tchernyshev, 31, might not even have realized just how much his perspective had been altered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. From his apartment in Hackensack, N.J., he can see where the World Trade Center used to stand.

Now he and Lang, the four-time U.S. ice-dance champions, stand together for something, for the centuries of people who have defined the American experience. She is a Native American, the first Indian woman to compete for the United States in the Winter Olympics. He is a new American, having become a citizen Jan. 29, 2001.

"It is symbolic that we have both sides, a Native American and a new American, merging together in one peaceful mission," Tchernyshev said.

For Lang, that mission has taken on a much greater dimension than simply skating in the ice-dance competition that begins Friday. She has become a symbol to Native Americans, most of whom did not know until recently that Lang was included among them. In mid-December, a Native American Web site had an article headlined "Unknown Amongst Her Own ... No Longer."

"It's neat that she self-identifies," said Gene Keluche, chairman of the Native American Sports Council. "So many Native Americans, particularly those with Spanish surnames, haven't figured out their ancestry."

Lang, 23, never hid her heritage. Until the Olympic year, there simply weren't many reasons to ask for biographical information about an ice dancer who had never finished higher than eighth in the world championships.

"I feel great over the exposure I've been getting because it gives Native Americans the recognition they deserve," she said.

Suzy Chaffee, a 1968 Olympic skier who is an activist for Native American causes, was impressed to the point of well-intentioned overstatement.

"When I saw a stunning picture of her on the cover of [a magazine], Indian Country Today, I thought, 'Wow, this could be Native America's Cathy Freeman, who could do wonders to lift her people, like Aborigines, women and blacks in past Olympics.'" Chaffee said.

Lang has almost no chance to win a gold medal, as Freeman, an Aborigine, did after lighting the Olympic cauldron two years ago in Australia. And even if Lang's role in the opening ceremony was not as prominent as Freeman's, it was nevertheless of great significance to Native Americans.

"Ms. Lang has no idea as to how proud the Karuk tribe is of her and how very much her hard work and dedication has put smiles upon our hearts," said Gary Lake, a Karuk tribal councilman.

Five athletes were chosen to present gifts and then receive blessings from leaders of Utah's five Native American tribes during the opening ceremony. Each represented a country with particular historical meaning to the modern Olympics. Lang, representing the 2002 host country, presented a laurel wreath to Rupert Steele of the Goshute Indian Nation.

"I can't even describe the feeling going through me when I was standing there," Lang said. "I have worked so hard in my life to be where I am. I'm hoping to be a role model to give other Native American children hope they can make something of themselves."

Lang's recent success has brought a poignant personal reward: the chance to reestablish a relationship with her Karuk-German father, Jason Lang, who was divorced from Lang's mother in 1981. Two weeks ago she received a congratulatory e-mail from him. It was their first contact in 14 years.

"It was really emotional for me," she said. "I know he still loves me. I would like to get to know him. I don't hold any grudges or judge people from the past. I want to look into the future."

It is hard to imagine a future in which many Native American kids take up figure skating, given the sport's high cost and the relatively few rinks near Native American lands.

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