It's early morning on Christmas Eve, and it doesn't matter. For Samantha Cesario, that holiday stuff can wait. She's on the rink at Iceland in New Hyde Park and, despite the calendar's exclamation, it's a Friday and practice is imperative.
After all, she's prepping to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals, which begin Jan. 26 in Greensboro, N.C.
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Midway through her session, she sticks a string of spectacular spins in succession; near-flawless jumps with the elevation and tightness her coaches seek, and the landings are graceful. Not bad, considering she had avoided those maneuvers for the previous two weeks while nursing a sore back.
It's been almost a year since Cesario, 17, first competed in nationals on the senior circuit in January, which served as the Olympics qualifier. She was 16 then: talented but raw, unafraid but unaccustomed to that stage. She had upset former Olympian and fellow Long Islander Emily Hughes in the regional, thus gliding onto the grand platform. But it meant having to perform against some of her idols in the national competition.
In addition, Cesario was featuring moves (triple Lutzes, triple jumps and triple flips) she'd picked up only a few months earlier. A fall in the short program set her back and, though her long program was clean, it wasn't enough to recover. The result: 14th place.
"When I got my scores, I was upset," the Oceanside High School senior said. "I wanted to at least be in the top 12 . . . But when I got home, I realized being 14th in the country isn't bad."
But for a self-described "perfectionist" - a girl who practices four hours before school - not bad isn't good enough. So her workouts were kicked up a notch trying to get those jumps down pat.
She's built her leg strength for greater lift and her team of coaches and choreographers have worked extensively with cameras and computers to track every movement on the ice, her father, Mike, said. The multiple angles allow them to pinpoint even the most subtle errors. "I've done a lot of work on my triples," said Cesario, who dedicates roughly half her sessions to jumps. "They look completely different now."
It's shown in the results. She took first in the Gardena Spring Trophy - her first international competition - in April, was a member of Team USA and finished fourth in the Junior Grand Prix in Romania in September, and won the North Atlantic Regional in October.
Mary Lynn Gelderman said her pupil's progress "has been extreme." She, along with Peter Burrows, have coached Cesario since she was 8.
But this year brought its own challenge as Cesario, for two months, has dealt with inflammation around a disc in her back. The injury, not uncommon among skaters, is a result of excessive torque and a lack of recuperation time, her mother, Joanne, said.
Cesario has worked with a physical therapist, receiving heat and electro-stimulation treatments along with stretches and new exercises, and says she's almost pain-free. She abstained from the complicated twirls but now plans to go full throttle the next month.
It's unlikely anything short of severe would keep her off the ice, anyway. The competitive fire is her greatest attribute, her coaches said.
Burrows recalled first meeting Cesario at the rink, when her former coach Susan Cibere introduced them and gushed about her potential. "She asked me me what I thought," Burrows said. "I shrugged and said, 'She's got two legs, two arms and a head.' Susan then said, 'But when she competes, she has something special.' She was dead right."
There's also a noticeable difference in Cesario's demeanor from a year ago; a calmness with which she speaks about the upcoming tournament. Then she sounded like what she was: an excited kid headed to nationals. She admitted it was "a bit of a shock."
"It'll be easier for me this time," said Cesario, who's aiming for a top six finish. "I'm more relaxed and I know what to expect . . . There's always a little bit of nerves, but I feel prepared. I'm ready to do my thing."