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Pairing Up Helps Skater Move On

Nam of Irvine gets a second chance after injuries forced her out of competing in singles. She and Leftheris will perform at nationals, with a chance to pull off an upset.

January 11, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Nami Nari Nam refused to be a victim.

As a 4-foot-8, 82-pound bundle of energy and charm, the Irvine resident was 13 when she captivated figure skating fans and finished second at the 1999 U.S. championships. She placed eighth in 2000, seemingly a minor setback, but the pain that developed in her hip that summer launched her on a painful and disheartening path.

She initially was told she had a fracture in her growth plate; later, that she had torn cartilage in her hip and would need surgery. She quit the sport and returned last season, only to finish one place short of a berth in the national competition.

Practicality drove her to take a coaching job at East West Ice Palace in Artesia, but she wasn't ready to give up her dream.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Figure skating -- An article in Wednesday's Sports section gave Irvine skater Naomi Nari Nam's first name as Nami.

"Not skating for a couple of years, I found I still had a love for the sport," she said.

For this comeback she switched to pair skating, which she'd always enjoyed watching. A friend put her in touch with Themistocles Leftheris, a Floridian who had moved to California and had lost his partner to retirement. They clicked when they met in April and seven months later won the Pacific Coast Sectional title and a berth in the U.S. championships with coaching help from Peter Oppegard. They will perform their short program today at the Savvis Center.

"I remember coming to nationals at 13 and shaking in my pants," said Nam, now 20 and a still-petite 5 feet tall. "Now, I get to enjoy every single aspect of nationals and I get to share it with someone I care about....

"Of course, I like the spotlight, but I can share it. Nowadays, when I go out to do singles, I feel like something's missing."

Leftheris, 23, had tried out with two women who had extensive pair skating experience before he met Nam.

"My gut instinct totally told me this was right," said Leftheris, who lives in Long Beach. "Just to be here at nationals, especially coming off a win at sections, is awesome.

"I don't think we expected this because there were so many pairs that had been together for so long, and she was having to compete against girls who had done this longer."

Pair skating has been in a downturn at the elite level in the U.S. Four duos have won the title the last four seasons and the results of last year's world championships limited the U.S. to two pairs at the Turin Olympics.

Defending champions Katie Orscher and Garret Lucash have ample international experience, and 2004 champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr. of Santa Monica did well in their two Grand Prix assignments this season, but neither has been dominant. That leaves a chance for Nam and Leftheris to pull off an upset this week with their charismatic style and ability to connect with their audience.

And if they don't qualify for Turin, they'll aim for the 2010 Games, patience that contrasts with what Nam called their usual "go-go-go" mentality.

"I feel like we've just hit the tip of the iceberg," Leftheris said. "We're already talking about what it's going to be like to come back next year and establish our own look."

*

In ice dancing, newly minted American Tanith Belbin and partner Ben Agosto led after the compulsory dance, the Yankee Polka, and pulled away after a lively original dance to salsa, rumba and cha-cha music.

They had 107.80 points, to 94.13 for a flu-weakened Melissa Gregory and partner Denis Petukhov. Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin were third with 86.79 points.

Citizenship applications by Belbin, a native of Canada, and Zavozin, a native of Russia, were accelerated thanks to an amendment to a congressional spending bill. She was sworn in on Dec. 31, a day after Zavozin.

Belbin and Agosto, second at last year's World Championships, will contend for a medal in Turin. They were warmly received Tuesday by the crowd of 4,860.

"The fans have been through something personal with us. They know us as people and as skaters," Belbin said.

That welcome wasn't universal. The parents of ice dancer David Mitchell lobbied against the amendment, saying Belbin and Agosto shouldn't take a spot from U.S. natives. However, Mitchell and partner Loren Galler-Rabinowitz said they bear no grudge and that the couples had smoothed any ruffled feelings.

"Everyone has the right to their opinion, but there are two sides to every story," Belbin said. "We can't expect everybody who crosses our path to think it was a great idea."

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