Angela Nikodinov Fights Her Way Back

Angela Nikodinov

The last year hasn't gone exactly as planned for three-time World Team member Angela Nikodinov.

She lost her coach and best friend, Elena Tcherkasskaia, to cancer just a few months before the 2002 State Farm U.S. Championships - perhaps one of the most important competitions of her life at that time. She teamed up with Frank Carroll in December 2001 in order to prepare for the championships, and despite her grief, she held up with grace and dignity under intense media scrutiny.

Nevertheless, a shaky free skate in Los Angeles left her in fourth place and off the Olympic Team. Shortly thereafter, Nikodinov dislocated her shoulder during practice and could not compete at the World Championships. After a prolonged period of healing and a summer of training and a short tour, she reinjured the shoulder again in early September, forcing her to pull out of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating.

Since she has been out of the limelight, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen vaulted into it - Hughes at the Olympics and Cohen with two Grand Prix victories. This, of course, was not the way Nikodinov had probably envisioned 2002.

But whatever you do, don't feel sorry for her. She's too busy and too dedicated to take pity on herself for any lost opportunities, so she's not concerned with what has happened on the competitive scene without her.

"I've had so many personal things happen to me," Nikodinov says. "But there is no drama or excuses here. I want to make the best of it. [It's] making me stronger. You can always give up, but there's no way I can do that."

Nikodinov returned to competition in early December at the Canadian Open, where she finished fourth. The competition was an excellent opportunity to get out in front of an audience again since the autumn was mostly spent off ice recovering from two separate ailments. After reinjuring her shoulder in September, she fell ill with a virus that knocked her out for six weeks. The two problems kept her off the ice for a total of 2 1/2 months - the longest absence she's ever had from the ice.

"I basically had to relearn to skate," Nikodinov says. "I didn't think I would ever feel [that] uncomfortable on the ice. So I took it very slowly."

Nikodinov knew she wasn't ready physically or mentally for the Canadian Open, but it was important for her to get a feel for competition again.

"There was no more beating around the bush," she says.

Despite the time off, she is still feeling some pain from the shoulder injury. Doctors have told her that once the original dislocation occurs, it is much more common for it to occur again. So she has been training hard with free weights to build up the muscle around the shoulder and strengthen her upper body. She'll wait until next summer to reevaluate the possibility of surgery after deciding an operation was not an option in September.

"It's a little risky," Nikodinov says of opting to compete this season without surgery, "but knock on wood, it's all going OK."

Things have changed off ice for her as well. She continues to work with Carroll, but she has also begun training with another Russian prima ballerina, Galina Barinova. At first Nikodinov thought working with Barinova would be a little strange after her strong relationship with Tcherkasskaia.

"I didn't want to replace Elena in that way," Nikodinov says. "But I needed the quality that Elena had to polish the program. I was reluctant at first, but I had to let it go."

Since beginning work with Barinova almost two months ago, Nikodinov says they have already developed a close relationship. Barinova, a friend of renowned pairs skater and coach Irina Rodnina, doesn't have a lot of experience with skaters but has also been working with U.S. pairs skaters Tiffany and Johnnie Stiegler.

Lori Nichol choreographed her new free skate to "Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun," and Carroll has been working with Nikodinov on her confidence during the program.

"With Frank we are doing the program every day from start to finish no matter what - pops, falls or anything else," she says. "In my mind I was always thinking 'I have to do a perfect program,' and when I made a mistake, [I would think], 'Why continue? It's not going to be perfect.'"

Nikodinov says she is trying to get over that emotional side of skating.

"My biggest critic is myself. I'm my own worst enemy," she says.

In that regard, Nikodinov plans to stay in the game and conquer those demons. She says she will not be satisfied until she's done everything she feels she can do. She puts an enormous amount of pressure on herself to succeed, and she wants to prove to her family and herself that she can succeed on a higher level than she already has.

"It's my life, [and] it's what I love to do," she says.

And what about the past?

"I spent half a year looking back and wanting what I had before (with Elena)," Nikodinov says. "It hurt too much. I want people to forget about my past, and I don't want to make excuses. We're all even on the ice."