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Nam spins her way to novice championship

February 11, 1997

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Naomi Nari Nam is so close to the ice she almost touches it, her body tightly curled as she whirls. When she finally comes to a stop, a broad grin crosses her face.

This is the part of skating she loves best. Not the showy jumps or the fancy footwork, but the fast, tight spins.

``She’s the best spinner in the country,″ said John Nicks, her coach. ``She gets around so quickly on the ice. She’s a bundle of energy out there.″

Nam’s spins set her apart from the rest of the competition Sunday as she took the women’s novice crown at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which continue this week. Now the 11-year-old from Irvine, Calif., has her sights set on the junior division.

``It was really neat just to be here. I wasn’t expecting to win,″ she said. ``I have to work on improving my jumps, getting more triples and moving up to juniors.″

It’s too soon to tell if Nam will be the next Michelle Kwan. Though she’s too young to compete in junior worlds, the novice national winner has to move up to the junior division next year or not compete.

But there’s a big difference between novice and juniors. Nam will need more strength, as well as more jumps with increased difficulty. Though Nam nailed a clean triple toe loop at nationals, jumping isn’t her strength. Triples aren’t unusual at the novice level these days, and she just started working on the triple toe two months ago.

What makes Nam stand out are her spins and presence on the ice. Though she’s only 11, she has a maturity on the ice of someone much older. While some other novices look jerky and hesitant, Nam skates with ease, making smooth transitions to her music.

``People are really going to notice how she spins, but there’s a lot more to her program,″ Nicks said.

Off the ice, Nam is still very much a little girl _ just as Kwan was a few years ago. She giggles during interviews, preferring to let Nicks or her mother, Connie Nam, speak for her. At 4-foot-3 and 65 pounds, her backpack is almost as big as she is.

As she watched the men’s novice free skate after winning her title, she tossed one of her bouquets to fourth-place Amir Ganaba before running off with a friend.

Though she was excited about her title, her only plans to celebrate were to take a few days off from training.

``I’m going to rest for awhile,″ she said. ``Go to school at the regular time.″

Nam started skating when she was 4 1/2, and was on the ice for just a few minutes before she tried skating by herself. She started taking lessons once a week when she was 5, gradually adding more.

``She’d never get off the ice,″ Connie Nam said. ``Whenever I said, `Let’s get off the ice and go home,′ she’d say no.″

As Nam got better, her parents wanted her to train with Nicks. But there was a problem: Nicks wasn’t sold on Nam.

Nicks said he wouldn’t give her a lesson until she could do an axel. Nam’s version consisted of throwing herself straight into the air, turning 1 1/2 times and coming straight down.

After finally mastering the axel, she began training with Nicks fulltime two years ago. Since then, Nam’s rise has been quick. She won the juvenile division at the Junior Olympics two years ago _ the equivalent of a national championship.

``Every year, when she’d move up a level, she’d (win a medal),″ her mother said. ``She just loves skating every day.″

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