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Devoted

Angela Nikodinov credits late coach for teaching skating, life lessons.

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002


LOS ANGELES -- She never said goodbye.

For days, then weeks, Angela Nikodinov lived with that thought.

It was there the morning in Germany when a 7 a.m. phone call drove her to hysterics, wailing and flinging flower pots from the hotel balcony.

It was there the morning in Moscow when she was in bed for a third straight day and knew no amount of shame could make her go to the funeral.

It was there the afternoon in southern California when she sat rigidly at a memorial service, unable to speak when the opportunity was presented.

She never said goodbye to Elena Tcherkasskaia, her coach, best friend, inspiration. She had no idea, as she watched Tcherkasskaia pull out of the driveway on the way to the airport that late September day, she would never again see the person she counted on the most.

It has been two months since Tcherkasskaia died in Moscow of pancreatic cancer, and Nikodinov still has not said goodbye. Perhaps she need not.

When Nikodinov steps on the ice tonight for the women's free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tcherkasskaia will be with her. Not just in her heart or her memories, but in the way she moves. The way she carries herself, the way she smiles. The way she lives.

"What Elena did was she opened me up," Nikodinov said. "With her, I didn't even have to say anything. She could just read me. I'd wake up and she'd say, "Oh this is not going to be a good day.' She could just tell from the look on my face. But that's what she did. She turned that around."

Their time together was brief. Nikodinov had just turned 20 when she began working with Tcherkasskaia. She will not see her 22nd birthday until May.

Yet, in those precious few months, Tcherkasskaia uncovered the potential skating experts had talked about for years. Nikodinov performs with a grace and a passion that Tcherkasskaia helped her discover. Six months after their partnership began, Nikodinov finished fifth in the World Championships. She goes into tonight's competition in fourth, with the top three advancing to the Olympics.

If her influence was limited to the rink, that would have been enough. But Tcherkasskaia, a former Bolshoi ballerina, had far more impact elsewhere.

She taught Nikodinov to have faith in herself. To approach life with excitement rather than trepidation. She would call Nikodinov "my little angel" and treated her in ways that made Nikodinov believe it was true. They lived in a house in San Pedro and would drive to the rink singing oldies along with the radio. Nikodinov's mother, an immigrant from Bulgaria, said Tcherkasskaia helped her daughter grow up and become a woman.

"It was kind of amazing she had more energy than I did and she was in her 60s," Nikodinov said. "She kind of picked me up and never let me down."

Nikodinov turned to Tcherkasskaia in the summer of 2000 after splitting with longtime coach Richard Callaghan. At the time, Nikodinov had no direction. She only knew she was lonely and tired of living in Detroit, where Callaghan is based, and wanted to return to southern California.

She worked with Tcherkasskaia as her choreographer in the past and they began collaborating again. There was no contract, no official announcement. Just a pair of women, separated by two generations, and linked by friendship.

"One of the things that's really impressed me about Angela is how much she's opened up through her relationship with Elena," said Frank Carroll, Michelle Kwan's former coach who has begun working with Nikodinov. "I would never expect to take Elena's place in her life and I don't think anybody ever will. Angela and Elena had a very special relationship and I will never be able to go in that direction with her."

When Tcherkasskaia, 64, began feeling rundown last fall, it was Nikodinov who urged her to see a doctor. The test results were grim and Tcherkasskaia's husband decided it was best not to tell Nikodinov the truth. Instead, she thought Tcherkasskaia was returning to Russia for more blood work, more tests. This is what Nikodinov was led to believe as they parted ways in September.

Six weeks later, after Nikodinov completed a competition in Germany, her father called her hotel room early in the morning. He was crying as he explained Tcherkasskaia had died, thousands of miles away.

Nikodinov slammed the phone down and began hurling things around the room. When she ran to the balcony, there was a brief fear from onlookers that she might throw herself off.

"I still have days when I get up and I can't imagine living without her," Nikodinov said. "It's hard, and some days are worse than others. But I know she's looking down and just saying, "Be strong.' "

At the most critical point of her career, Nikodinov was left without her guiding force. She barely practiced for weeks, even with the Olympic trials on the horizon. Carroll has helped, but says most of the burden rests with Nikodinov.

"I can't help Angela go through the grieving process. That's an impossible thing to do," Carroll said. "What I needed to help Angela with is to have her understand that although she's gone through this very painful time, she's in a sport where people are very objective about judging it.

"They don't really consider what you're going through, the pain or emotional loss. It's what you do at the time that counts."

So look closely at Nikodinov tonight. See the grace in her movement, see the passion in her eyes. And understand it was not easily achieved.

And look for the blue stone she wears around her neck. It was given to her by Tcherkasskaia at last year's U.S. championships.

Nikodinov used to wear it because she believed it would keep her safe from the evils of the world. Now, she wears it for a different reason. Not to keep anything away, but to hold something close.

"This is like Elena for me now," Nikodinov said.

"I don't take it off."

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