LI's Cesario skates for an Olympic spot

Figure skater Samantha Cesario practices at Iceland Skating Figure skater Samantha Cesario practices at Iceland Skating Rink. (January 11, 2009) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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There's about four feet between the prize-grab game machine and an air hockey table in the hallway, but if Samantha Cesario gets it right, that's more than enough space. Up slowly and steadily on her tiptoes, a push-off and a pirouette.

She's taking a 20-minute "break" between skating sessions at Iceland in New Hyde Park, but dressed down in black sweats and sneakers, she goes through those steps repeatedly, using the game's glass encasement as a mirror and grading her reflection. A stumble costs her extra reps. She will keep doing them until each twirl is as close to perfect as possible

Every move in her repertoire will have to be when she takes the ice on Thursday in Spokane, Wash., to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals, seeking a spot in the Vancouver Olympics.

Cesario, a 16-year-old Oceanside High School student, has had the ante upped since tasting stardom in October. That's when she finished first as a senior skater in the North Atlantic Regional, upending 2006 Olympian and fellow Long Islander Emily Hughes and qualifying for Nationals.

"To beat someone as great as Emily," Cesario smiled, "it was amazing . . . I think I screamed and went crazy."

She wasn't the only one. "She's been getting asked for autographs a lot since and one time a woman went into the bathroom with her to ask for one," her mom, Joanne, said.

The hallway walls near the entrance of Iceland are adorned with newspaper clippings noting her advancement to Nationals, which this year serves as the Olympic qualifier. That means many of the stars will compete, including Sasha Cohen, whom Cesario idolizes so much she skates to her old music selection (Lionel Hampton's "Dark Eyes"). And Cesario craves that stage, insisting she'll enjoy the affixed eyes of a national audience.

She spends her Thursdays and Saturdays in Monsey, N.Y. at a larger facility with a cadre of coaches and choreographers. But on a Wednesday morning at Iceland, tucked inconspicuously behind a bakery, her audience is her mom and four novices - youngsters who interrupt their own routines to gaze at hers.

She returns to the ice at 9 a.m., this time with coach Marylynn Gelderman. Cesario is fervently practicing triple jumps, triple lutzes and triple flips - a tricky trio she's learned in the last five months but must perfect in a hurry.

After a fourth fall, Gelderman suggests she move on from the triple flip. Fatigue and the coach's voice are no match for her perseverance, though. Cesario skates to the CD player, resets "Bohemian Rhapsody" and attempts the jump again. And again. "She can be stubborn," her mother says.

"She's tenacious," said Gelderman, who with Peter Burrows, has trained Cesario since she was 8, a year after she began skating. "She used to come in at 5:30 without a coach in the building . . . You look for talent, work ethic and a love of performing. There's nothing lacking in her."

Cesario stumbles once more before something clicks and she reels off a string of graceful jumps and landings.

"It was giving me trouble, but I got it back," she said. "You keep going until you get it."

The practice, which began at 6:30, ends a little before 10, about when her day as a typical teen can begin. She's got U.S. History in 40 minutes and after school, she'll teach religion to first-graders at St. Anthony's parish. "I want to be an elementary school teacher," Cesario said, "so this is a start."

But an immediate goal is a strong performance in Spokane, though expecations are modest. She admits "it would be awesome to place in the top 10 or 12."

"Being introduced into seniors in the Olympic year is really difficult since the top girls have been on top for years," Gelderman said. "For now, it's about getting experience . . . But I would never underestimate her."

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