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HELENE ELLIOTT

Skater looks to the future amid a past full of losses

November 02, 2006|HELENE ELLIOTT

If Angela Nikodinov had never laced up her skates again, who could have blamed her? Figure skating had brought her so much joy, but it also had brought unspeakable sorrows that still haunt her as she moves slowly, surely forward.

Nikodinov, of San Pedro, had gone through a series of coaches in search of the right fit until, in 2000, she discovered Elena Tcherkasskaia. The vivacious former ballerina calmed her nerves and nurtured her soul, and under Tcherkasskaia's loving hand Nikodinov finished third at the 2001 U.S. championships and fifth at the world championships, becoming a contender for the 2002 U.S. Olympic team.

Two months before the selection, Tcherkasskaia died of pancreatic cancer. A shaken Nikodinov, who hadn't been told of her coach's illness, missed a berth at the Salt Lake City Games by one place.

A shoulder injury and surgery cost her most of the 2002-03 season, but she won a major event in October 2004 and was optimistic for the 2005 U.S. championships. But once again, her world shuddered to a horrifying halt.

Her mother, Dolores, was killed when the taxi in which Nikodinov, her parents and her new coach were riding to the national competition collided with a car and veered into a road divider in Portland, Ore. Dolores Nikodinov was 48. Angela suffered an arm injury and deeper wounds that were beyond bandaging.

"I don't think there's a day when I don't think about it, even when I'm driving on the freeway," she said softly. "Sometimes if a car kind of comes close to me, I don't think it will ever go away."

Nikodinov took time to heal before she took up coaching, working in Paramount and Torrance with kids of all levels. She also coached elite skater Ivan Dinev of Bulgaria, her parents' homeland. With her at rinkside he finished 17th at the Turin Olympics and 19th at the world championships in Calgary, Canada.

She's not sure when she began to think about performing again. Whether she could. Whether she wanted to.

"Over the summer I started skating just for fun. I'd do a little spin or something here and there," she said. "Then I got new skates and just slowly got back into it at my own pace, knowing that you don't have anything coming up, just stress-free, get back into it.

"I enjoyed it, and it almost became a game to see how fast I can get everything back."

Having reclaimed many of her jumps and all her mesmerizing grace, Nikodinov dipped a toe pick back into her old world by deciding to relinquish her Olympic eligibility and skate in shows. She fears she won't meet audiences' expectations, but Dinev believes she will soar.

"She is very strong," he said, "and every hard moment has made her stronger inside."

An exhibition in early October at Grand Rapids, Mich., was her first public performance in 22 months. "I actually felt like a skater again," she said, smiling. She plans to compete in the "Ice Wars" event today in Hoffman Estates, Ill., and skate in the Scott Hamilton and Friends cancer research benefit in Cleveland on Saturday.

She's eager to participate in the Michael Bolton Tribute on Ice on Nov. 11 in Bridgeport, Conn., because Bolton was her mother's favorite singer. After that, she has an array of offers to ponder before she joins the Stars on Ice tour for 20 shows in February and March.

"I think this is going to be good for her, just to skate professional. It's going to be fun for her," Dinev said.

"I remember when she was with me at the world championships in Canada, it was time for me to skate and many of the public saw her and said, 'Angela we love you.' ... You saw how many fans she has, and good for her. I hope everything is going to be all right for her."

Her new world will be different. She must please crowds, not judges, and she must be "on" for dozens of shows instead of a few events during a competitive season.

And her mother won't be waiting to embrace her afterward, the cruelest change of all. She has resolved not to let the pain of Dolores' absence prevent her from finding fulfillment on the ice.

"I could stay home and lock myself in the house for years, but what's that going to do for me?" she said. "Neither she nor Elena would want me to give it up and throw it away. It's what you trained your whole life for, what you've done, and why would you throw something away like that?

"You can look at it as being a victim but if I sit there and be depressed and think, 'Why does this always happen to me and what else is going to happen?' It's not going to help me. I try to be positive. Everything happens for a reason."

She and her father, Nick, have purchased 10 acres of land in Cherry Valley, in Riverside County, where they hope to build a training center with a rink, ballet and exercise rooms and dormitory.

She envisions it as "a facility with everything in one," as she used to enjoy at Lake Arrowhead, but it's still in the drawing-board stages.

In the meantime, she has several new routines to learn and a life to rebuild.

When she tours, she plans to skate to "There You'll Be," a song written by Diane Warren and recorded by Faith Hill. The lyrics thank a missing loved one for imparting strength, light and love, and say, "I'll keep a part of you with me, and everywhere I am, there you'll be."

For Nikodinov, it's a lasting truth.

"It's kind of uplifting," she said. "A tribute to my mom and Elena."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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