by GAIL GOURLEY
by Leah Adams)
AS A VERY YOUNG GIRL, NAOMI LANG spent time along Salmon River, camping in the summer and visiting with relatives including respected Karuk elder Bessie Tripp, her great-great grandmother. An enrolled member of the Karuk tribe by her father's heritage, Lang was born in Arcata and lived there until she was 8 in the midst of a Native American community.
Now at 23, she spends most of her time at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., far away in distance and culture from her northern California roots. That's the ice rink where she and her Russian-born skating partner, Peter Tchernyshev, reigning U.S. national ice dancing champions, are training to represent the United States in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Lang and Tchernyshev have been skating together since 1996 and have won the past three consecutive U.S. national ice dancing titles as well as placing in the top 10 in the last three world competitions. Following several ice shows in December, the pair will defend their title at the U.S. National Championships in early January in Los Angeles where the top two teams will qualify for the Olympics.
Lang joins the list of other prominent athletes who rose to stardom from North Coast beginnings. Triathlete Mike Pigg, golfer Chris Johnson, major league baseball players Dane and Garth Iorg and Olympic sprinter Elta Cartwright, who recently died at age 93, are a few of the local noteworthies.
But Lang brings another distinction to the group. According to a web site that tracks Native American athletes, she would be the first Native American woman to ever compete in the Winter Olympics and only the second to compete in any Olympic Games.
Although she is far removed from her California origins, Lang does maintain memories of her early youth. "I grew up among a Native American community," said Lang. "I remember that distinctly. Basically everyone around me was Native American."
[in photo below: Naomi's mother, Leslie Dixon, infant Naomi and her Karuk great-great grandmother, Bessie Tripp, 1979.]
Lang has maintained contact with one cousin her own age, LaVien Lang, over the years. Artist Brian Tripp and attorney Amos Tripp also are cousins and her uncle, Julian Lang, is the well-known Karuk author of Ararapiikva: Creation Stories of the People.
Lang recalls her mother taking her to pow wows and how she used to love the Indian fry bread her father made. "I haven't had that in so long and I would love to have some of that," she said recently in a telephone interview from her New Jersey home.
She also carries a vivid image of the row of eucalyptus trees and the birds along the bay on the stretch of U.S. Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka, as she traveled back and forth for dance lessons. "I remember distinctly that road and the egrets when I was little."
The very beginnings of her dance career, and her instructor in Eureka at the Dancers Studio, Virginia Niekrasz-Laurent, are also recollections that have stayed with her. "I remember my first ballet lesson with her," Lang said. "And I remember performing in the `Nutcracker' as a bonbon. I got to wear the purple bonbon costume. I was so happy about that because it was my favorite color."
Her mother, Leslie Dixon, vividly recalls how Lang first became interested in dance. "She was just 3 years old and we went up to Humboldt (State University) to see the production of `The Nutcracker,' and she just loved it," said Dixon, speaking from her home in Michigan. "She loved the dancers and the dancing and the costumes -- everything. And she wanted to do it."
Shortly after that Dixon enrolled her daughter in lessons at the Dancers Studio, the only place she could find that would accept students as young as 3 years old. While most dance instructors said they couldn't start her until she was 5, Dixon said, "Naomi wanted to start right then. I thought, the sooner the better if that's what she wants to do."
Lang's first performance as that purple bonbon in "The Nutcracker" was at the age of 6. [photo at left]"It was wonderful for me to see how much she loved it," Dixon said. "And she worked so hard. She was so serious, learning all the steps. She wanted to do everything right. I was just amazed. Then I saw that she did have talent, too."
Niekrasz-Laurent, who has taught dance at her Eureka studio since 1972, also was impressed by Lang as being "a very studious, attentive child. I remember she came back some years ago. She and her mother came back and I was extremely touched by how important they both thought that my initial training and inspiration was to her."
Niekrasz-Laurent said she is gratified by Lang's success but not surprised by it. "There's something about serious dance training that just makes you really able to go out there and do what you want to do," she said. "(Those students) are organized, they're disciplined, they can handle multiple tasks and they're always positive, completely positive."
As Lang was learning the basics of dance, she had the other interests of many youngsters her age as well. "She always liked to go to the beach and the river," recalled Dixon. "She liked to be outside. And she always liked playing with her friends."
While she was doing normal kid stuff, even as a tot on a tricycle, Lang showed determination to go after something she wanted. "I remember one day I couldn't find her," said Dixon. "She'd gone off to play and I couldn't find her and I was panicked." Dixon finally discovered her young daughter in the produce section of nearby Alliance Market, still on her tricycle, cruising the aisles. Her explanation? "Well, I wanted an orange," she told her mother.
And there was roller-skating. "She always loved to skate," said Dixon. "I bought her this pair of roller skates for her birthday and I couldn't get them off her. She wanted to sleep in them. She'd put them on and she literally skated all day long." [photo at right shows Naomi, far right, with friends at her 7th birthday party at the roller skating rink in Blue Lake.]
Lang attended first grade at Arcata Christian School. Dixon, meanwhile, had graduated from the nursing program at Humboldt State and worked the midnight shift at Sempervirens mental health facility, a single mother raising her daughter and son, Danny, a student at Arcata High School. Then in 1986 the family moved to Michigan, where Dixon could be close to her mother and where better job opportunities awaited her.
Shortly after the move, a family outing to see a production of "Smurfs on Ice" in Grand Rapids stimulated a desire on Lang's part to try ice-skating. "At that time in her life she was doing a little bit of everything -- taking violin lessons, doing ballet, gymnastics, she even did tap and jazz for a while, and horseback riding. She was just trying everything out to see what she liked," Dixon said.
Lang started group lessons and soon began working with a private coach. That led to her performance in a small ice show as part of the skating club.
"It was just for fun," said Dixon. "I'm really not a competitive person. I just wanted her to do it for fun because she enjoyed it. But then the coach started saying, `I think that she should go to a competition.' I was really against that. But the coach said, `No, she's really got some talent. She should try it.' So Naomi said yes, she wanted to try it."
At the age of 9, Lang went to the Springtime Invitational in Ann Arbor, her first competition and she won it. "So then of course I changed my mind," said Dixon. "I thought, `Maybe this is something she can do.'"
While Dixon may not have been a competitive person at first, she was always as supportive as any mother could be. Over the next decade, as Lang progressed through the skating ranks, first in freestyle and then in ice dancing, for a time Dixon drove her daughter to weekend lessons three hours away so she could study with a Russian ice dancing coach. "Good ice skating coaches are very hard to find, so people do all kinds of crazy things to get lessons for their kids," she said.
The move from freestyle skating to ice dancing when she was about 12 was a natural one for Lang. "Freestyle didn't come to me as naturally as ice dancing because, I think, I was a ballet dancer for so long. I danced until I was 15. I was involved in the (dance) companies in Grand Rapids," Lang said. "Because I was a ballet dancer it made me lean more towards ice dancing. It was much like ballet, and it came a little more naturally to me."
She studied with the ice dancing coach for three years before she even found a partner to skate with. "Most people don't realize that to find a (skating) partner for a girl is nearly impossible. It's worse than finding a husband. The boys are so few and far between and in ice dancing the boys can name their price," Dixon said. So much so, in fact, the girls who are looking for a partner will often pay the boy's expenses. "I was a single mother and a nurse and I didn't have all that much money to be able to do that."
Lang's coach told her she just had to practice and learn and work on becoming very, very good, and then boys would seek her out to skate with. "So that's what she did for three years," said Dixon. "When she was 15 a boy did see her competing and his parents approached us. They had a tryout and it looked like they were a good match and so they started skating together." Lang and new partner, John Lee, won the national title in ice dancing at the novice level, then competed at the junior level the following year, 1996, and took the silver medal.
Soon after that, however, the partnership ended.
"Basically it was because I had run totally out of money," Dixon explained. "Skating costs at least $30,000 a year and I didn't make much more than that. Lessons when I was paying for them were at least $70 an hour, and Naomi needed several hours a day to remain at a competitive level. A pair of skates cost a minimum of $900, and that wasn't for custom skates, which would be much higher. Then you have to pay for ice time, which was several thousand dollars for the season." And there were costumes and the cost of travel to competitions where the parents were also expected to pay the coach's expenses. Dixon said she just couldn't pay for it anymore and the parents of Lang's partner couldn't absorb her expenses, so the pair broke up. That turn of events left things uncertain.
That ambiguity was short-lived, however, as Lang's current partner came into the picture. Tchernyshev, 30, had come to the United States in 1992 from Russia and had been competing in ice dancing, but was searching for a new partner. He had seen Lang skate at the 1996 Nationals. Dixon explained, "Peter sent her a letter saying that he had seen her and he had heard that she and (her partner) had broken up. He was living in New York at that time.
(photo at left by Leah Adams)
"He wanted her to come to Lake Placid to try out with him. He said if it worked out then he would pay for all of her training expenses. But the only stipulation was that she had to move to Lake Placid and work with his coach."
That wouldn't be easy for Lang, as she had been with the same coach for about five years. But she and her mother went to Lake Placid and the tryout went so well that Tchernyshev told them he'd cancel all his other tryouts if she'd skate with him. Lang wanted to keep skating, so she and her mother made the move. It was a difficult year for her, though. She was a high school senior and had to adjust to a new school, town, partner and coaches.
"It was very hard for her. She had a very hard time adjusting," recalled Dixon. But even through the difficulty of all the changes for Lang, she and Tchernyshev clicked on the ice and made a steady climb through the national ice dancing ranks, placing fifth at their first U.S. Championships in 1997, third in 1998, and best in the nation ever since. Tchernyshev became a U.S. citizen in January and now the pair looks toward the 2002 National Championships and if they are successful, the Olympics in February.
"We're training very hard right now," said Lang. "I'm pretty sore by the end of the day." That day typically involves several sessions on the ice followed by off-ice work in lifts, dance and weigh training. But that's not all -- Lang also teaches group skating lessons in the afternoons and evenings.
The pair even makes a brief appearance in one of the funniest and most incongruous commercials on national television right now. It's the one for Bissell, a carpet cleaning machine, that shows a bunch of tough-looking burly guys watching TV, toasting with smoothies and cheering for -- not football or wrestling, but ice dancing. The skaters they're watching ever so briefly on the screen are Lang and Tchernyshev.
[at right is the cover of April 2001 Skating Magazine, photo by Paul Harvath]
With all this in her schedule and on her mind, she is still able to readily talk about her role in skating with focus and perspective. Knowing that figure skating is a sport that requires "paying your dues" and many years to get to the top, she said, "Fortunately we were able to get in the top 10 (in the world) our first time. So from top 10, until let's say, No. 1, it takes a certain amount of time." To overcome that obstacle, Lang said, "We've decided, my partner and I, that we are skating for the audience, and that's it. As long as we please the audience, we feel satisfied."
Lang also takes to heart her Native American heritage. When she was a baby her father gave her the Karuk name Maheetahan, which means "morning star."
"It's so ironic that he would give me that name and then I would turn out to be where I am today," she said. (Lang's mother said she and Naomi's father went their separate ways after they were divorced, and Naomi has had no contact with him since she was 10 years old.)
"Everybody in the skating world is so interested that I'm a Native American and they want to know more about it. I think it's a great way for me to educate people about my heritage."
She clearly sees that as part of her role. "Hopefully I'm a positive role model for them," she said. "I do my best to make my people happy and my family happy. Basically I'm skating for them, hopefully to show that Native Americans are very strong and we can do anything."
At left, Naomi and Peter featured
in Sports Illustrated, Jan. 29, 2001. photo by Paul Harvath
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