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Kirk Has New Edge

Skater discovers independence in Southern California, where she's come to train for a dream

September 28, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Since figure skater Jennifer Kirk arrived in Southern California over the summer to train with coaches Frank Carroll and Ken Congemi, she has learned more than just how to improve her jumps.

Living on her own for the first time, she had to learn to shop, cook, and balance her checkbook. It has been mostly a journey of happy discovery for Kirk, who turned 20 on Aug. 15, but there was the day her car battery died and she didn't know what to do.

"I had to get a phone book," she said, laughing. "I'd never read a phone book before, and I had to find a Volvo dealership and jump-start my car."

By expanding her life outside the rink, Kirk hopes to become a stronger person and competitor. She's glad she made the switch, even if she's still leery of driving on Los Angeles' busy freeways.

"Before, I thought I had to just be focused on skating," she said after a recent practice at HealthSouth Training Center in El Segundo. "I had to go to the rink, and all that mattered was if I did my triple lutz in my long program today. Now I realize that's fine, but there's more....

"It's helped my skating in a way that I've been able to relax about that and know that I'm not just Jenny the skater, I'm Jenny the person."

Although she'd been in Rochester, Mich., for only two years and Coach Richard Callaghan had guided her to a career-best third behind Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen at the U.S. championships, Kirk became "antsy" last season. Evan Lysacek, the world junior men's silver medalist, whom she calls a close friend, was studying with Carroll and Congemi, but Kirk said she moved for her sake, not his.

"There's not a lot to do in Michigan," said Kirk, a native of Newton, Mass. "There's basically go to the rink and go to the gym and go to the mall, and I felt like I needed more.

"I also wanted to be with a coach that really works on technique. And Mr. Callaghan is a great trainer. He was awesome at getting me to do my programs and getting me in really good shape for events, but I think we never established really good communication between the two of us. And I never felt really comfortable at the rink and happy to skate. So I knew that it was time."

She'll get a gauge of her progress Friday at the Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic at St. Paul, Minn. She's part of an impressive field that includes five-time world champion Kwan, world silver medalist Cohen, and world champion Shizuka Arakawa of Japan. Each skater will perform a long program before a five-judge panel.

For Kirk, entered in the Cup of China and Cup of Russia Grand Prix events in November, Friday's competition is also a chance to demonstrate her new resolve.

"In the past, it's been just, 'I just want to skate well,' " she said. "This year I really want to go into every competition thinking I'm the best and to have the confidence that I can do this and not just be, 'OK, go through the motions,' because you need to have that competitive drive.

"It's better to aim up top and miss than to be like, 'I'll settle for the middle of the pack.' There's so many times that I think I've [thought], 'OK, well, there's Sasha and there's Michelle and there's this one and there's that one, so I'm about sixth. That's good.' You can't think like that. Always, no matter what, you have to go in and think you're the best, even if you don't believe it."

At 5-1, with a slender build and a ballerina's grace, Kirk has a classic look that judges love. However, she has lacked consistency and stamina, areas Carroll is intent on strengthening through rigorous training.

"I find her very pleasant, very interested in what I have to say and in improving her technique and that sort of thing," said Carroll, who teaches her morning lessons. "It's fine to be pretty, and it's fine to improve your technique and what you're doing, but the real test of someone is getting in shape enough to do a program twice [without rest], and that can be a very ugly part. So far we have not ventured into that realm.

"I think she's an extremely beautiful girl. I think she has movie-star looks. She has a beautiful visual picture about her, and that's exquisite."

Congemi, who conducts her afternoon lessons and usually focuses on jumping techniques, said the sport's new and more precise scoring system should work in her favor.

He said she had the potential for top-three finishes or better if she pulled everything together.

"Now, it's about point total, not placement, and I think that will help someone like Jennifer because of how good her skating skills are, the way she covers the ice, the way she can relate to music," he said. "There are skaters that go out there and just do a jump or do a spin, and it's one that can incorporate and skate, really get into the ice, that will do well. I certainly like that about Jennifer. She can cover the ice and be beautiful while doing these difficult tricks."

Kirk said she was benefiting from working with Carroll and Congemi because they complemented each other and "no one person has all the answers." She's looking toward the 2006 Turin Olympics with renewed eagerness.

"I was the third American this year, so I hope to move up and I hope to make that team," she said. "It's a dream.... I have a chance to make an Olympic team. To understand how many kids come to skating rinks every day and want that, and the fact that it could happen to me, it brings butterflies to my stomach. It's incredibly exciting."

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