When Oceanside's Samantha Cesario takes the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina, she'll be performing her long program to the music of "Carmen" -- an opera known for its beautiful and fierce leading lady.
It's an appropriate choice, said Cesario's coach, Mary Lynn Geldermann.
Cesario, who has endured several injuries since making her international skating debut when she was 16, is known for her grace as well as her power.
Now 21, Cesario is finding new ways to show her strength. After earning a spot as alternate for the 2014 Sochi Olympics after the nationals last year, she will again be on one of figure skating's grandest stages. This time, she's one of the favorites.
A top-three finish could earn her a selection for the World Championships March 23-29 in Shanghai.
A rocky love affair
"Even the injuries and setbacks are definitely something that pushed me forward," Cesario said Thursday after her practice at Twin Rinks in East Meadow, where she is also an instructor. "I've always been such a competitive person and my parents have always pushed me, but at the same time, they felt like, if you don't love it, you shouldn't do it . . . I have that drive within myself, I think, and that's what's pushed me this far."
Geldermann is a big fan of Cesario's determination. "She's got some true grit," the coach said. "She's had tremendous physical setbacks . . . and she's suffered greatly . . . but she projects a very graceful strength.
Cesario, who stumbled a bit in her short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last year but took fifth after a flawless long program, began skating when she was 6 and instantly fell in love with the sport. The love affair, though, was sometimes rocky.
For one thing, said her mom, Joanne, an elementary school monitor, figure skating is notoriously expensive. "There were times we were almost going to second-mortgage our home," she said.
Then, it turned out Cesario had misaligned knees, something, her coach said, that makes it nearly impossible to do a triple toe as a second jump in a triple-triple combination (triple-triple jumps are the hallmark of senior skaters). Instead, Cesario must use the more difficult triple loop as her second jump.
Then there were the injuries: She suffered fractured vertebrae in 2011 shortly before the U.S. championships and, days before the same competition in 2012, she suffered a leg injury, a torn lateral collateral ligament. She even got mononucleosis in June, Geldermann said, and was so weak, she couldn't start practicing again until September.
Undeterred, Cesario pushed forward. "It takes a lot of determination to come back from such a great setback," Cesario said. "I have that drive within myself, I think, and that's what's pushed me this far."
She's made sacrifices, but they're worth it, she said.
'This is all I know'
Cesario often designs her own costumes, her mother said, adding that she gave up a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology to keep her focus on skating.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, what sacrifices did you have to make and do you regret it,' " Cesario said. "It's just for me, this is what I've grown up doing. This is all I know, so I don't feel like I've really given up that much . . . I've been doing it for 16 years and I'm going to keep doing it for as long as I love it."
The sport needs her, Geldermann said. She said Cesario exemplifies the artistry that people want to see. "We are a sport of artistic flavor and we can't be just a sport or just the jumps," she said. "People want to be entertained . . . they don't just want a race to the finish line."
Even so, figure skating is often considered a young person's game, and Cesario knows that even at the tender age of 21, her body can't take the beating a 15- or 16-year-old's can.
"I'm tired," she said, breathlessly. "But I feel like I definitely have more experience, and I feel like that helps me. I feel like with nerves and stuff like that, I know what to expect, and I feel more comfortable than maybe some of the young ones."
Her mother may not share the sentiment. Joanne -- the woman who would drive Samantha to 4:30 a.m. practices and helped save up for $2,000 skates -- says she can't watch her daughter compete. She finds it too nerve-wracking, she said, and she won't be in North Carolina; she might DVR it and watch it later.
"When she was younger, I'd get up and walk out and go into the bathroom and flush the toilet so I couldn't hear what was happening," Joanne said. "It's just so tough for me . . . I actually get sick."
Part of that has to do with everything she's seen her daughter go through. Things are easier now, she said. With Samantha's ascension to the top of the ranks, a lot of the expenses are paid for and it finally seems like she's getting her just rewards.
"She's had so many bumps along the way," Joanne said. "She's just never stopped and never gives up."