Pat Dierking stood behind a short row of bleachers in the dimly lighted spectator area beside the Allen Park Ice Rink and quietly watched her 12-year-old grandson. Her face wore a smile, and her eyes sparkled.
Robbie Dierking slipped onto the ice with two dozen other young figure skaters, easily blending into the group, just another lanky kid with braces on his teeth and blond highlights in his hair. He dressed unassumingly in black pants and a white sweat shirt with the sleeves scrunched above his elbows.
Then, in about the time it took songs by Ricky Martin and 'N Sync to play over the rink's audio system, Robbie Dierking set himself apart.
He swooshed around the ice with undeniable speed and grace, performing a variety of jumps, spins and turns the others didn't dare try.
Most observers saw Robbie's sheer athleticism.
His grandmother noticed something else.
"I'm so pleased to see him happy," she said. "He just loves to be on the ice."
In the world of figure skating, Robbie Dierking is special. A December story in the Rocky Mountain News after a major competition outside Denver called him "a phenom."
He took up the sport three years ago and has competed in two national competitions. He won them both, a feat believed to be unprecedented.
"You don't want to label a kid, but he has more potential than any skater we've trained," said Kirk Wyse, who along with Lenel van den Berg runs the well-regarded Jamestown Skating Club.
But Robbie Dierking has not skated through life.
His father, Ross Dierking, was an Army sergeant killed nine years ago in Kuwait City in a noncombat incident after the Persian Gulf War.
Robbie and his mother, Un Suk Dierking, lived at Fort Stewart near West Point, but after Ross' death they moved to her native Korea. Six months later, they headed to Tacoma, Wash. It was then when Un Suk decided she couldn't raise Robbie anymore and sent him to live with his grandmother.
Two years ago, Un Suk, now living in Seattle, wanted her son back. Robbie declined to return, and a legal battle ensued. Pat Dierking won custody of her grandson.
There is more. Pat Dierking, a breast cancer survivor, has cancer again. Her doctor doesn't yet know how serious it is, but she decided not to tell Robbie about it until recently.
She didn't want to burden him with any more stress.
He's only 12 years old.
"If you see him out there skating a program, it's almost like he's a bird," Pat Dierking said, a tone of amazement in her voice. "Mentally, I don't feel that he's on earth when he's flying and jumping and being free. It's freedom for him that must feel extraordinary."
Twists of fate
Most people three, four, five times his age struggle with the concept of fate. But fate has been a constant presence in Robbie Dierking's young life.
Fate, however, hasn't been all bad. It has shown it can be kind.
Out of all the strife he has endured, Robbie has discovered something that's precious to him. It occurred virtually by accident, but many would say the result has been too perfect, too cathartic to be mere happenstance.
"I think some people say, 'How can God do all that to a young man?' But he has had so many blessings," said Dan Rusk, who is Robbie's second cousin and Pat's nephew. Rusk has been an instrumental male influence in Robbie's life since Ross Dierking died.
"He's really had a hard road," Rusk said, "and yet it's a thing of beauty to watch him use a gift."
Three years ago, Robbie was searching for something to stave off the boredom between soccer seasons. He came across a flier for a learn-to-skate program. Despite never having strapped blades to his feet, it piqued his interest.
The skates he used that first day were rented. But, oh, what a fit.
"I got in the car, got on my cell phone and called my partner," Wyse said. " 'You're never going to believe the kid that just walked into the rink! It's just unbelievable!'
"This is fate. That this boy who walked into this rink that had a skating program, that knew how to develop him, because of a flier at school -- that means fate."
A year ago Robbie entered his first national event, the U.S. Junior Nationals at the Amherst Pepsi Center. Competing at the juvenile level, he opened his final program with his favorite jump, a triple salchow, and fell.
But he hit every other jump in what many observers said was the competition's most difficult routine, and he won the title.
"Most of the time when you go to a national, you won't win your very first," said the Jefferson Middle School honor roll student. "I don't think it was an accident, but it was rare. It's pretty hard to explain just to know you're the best in the U.S."
Robbie moved up to the intermediate level and, in December, entered the U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships in Westminster, Colo.
He admitted he was more intimidated this time, but he executed two triple jumps and several impressive combinations to win his second major title in as many tries.
"I was competing against kids that were six years older than me," he said, "and to know I can beat somebody that much older than me is an honor."
Talent plus hard work
Scant few athletes -- amateur or professional -- can say they've won every national event they've been in. With such an amazing start in a high-profile international sport, the ensuing questions were inevitable.
"Most people talk about the Olympics, but I just focus on what's going to happen this year," Robbie said. "Like every kid who likes sports, I do think about the Olympics. I do dream about the Olympics."
Trey Ehre is a product of the Jamestown Skating Club and also was one of its instructors. The Williamsville North graduate now skates professionally in shows alongside the likes of Nancy Kerrigan, Tara Lipinski, Lu Chen and Rudy Galindo.
Ehre won't put a ceiling on Robbie's future.
"When I was teaching down there and competing at the same time, he demonstrated so much talent that you could just not help but notice," Ehre said. "It's a natural talent, and he just works so hard.
"As long as he sticks with it and is enjoying what he's doing, that's the most important thing. He has the tools to make it big as long as he can give himself a little room to breathe so he doesn't get tired of it."
Robbie has graduated to the novice level (the next stage is junior, and then senior, where the Olympics are contested). It will be important for him to maintain development of his athleticism while accentuating his artistry as he progresses.
His next event will be either the Lake Placid Skating Club Competition in July or the North American Challenge Skate at a site and date to be determined.
"There's work to be done to get ready for the next level," Wyse said. "He will have to improve artistically. But all the top male skaters as kids have focused on learning the jumps. Brian Boitano was not a good artist. Todd Eldredge was not a good stylist. But they could do the jumps, and you have to be able to do the jumps to win."
When Robbie was sent across country from Tacoma to live with her, Pat Dierking wasn't ready to be a parent again, "but I was ready to make as good a home as I could for a little boy who needed it," the 61-year-old retiree said.
"I'm pretty angry with his father for not being around for him, but we can't do anything about that," she said. "But I can feel him with us. He's a presence in our life."
Ross Dierking was a nine-year Army veteran assigned to the 146th Ordnance Detachment Unit, which handled the procurement and safekeeping of military supplies.
He served during the Persian Gulf War, but his death occurred soon after the war ended in an accident the Army classifies as a "vehicle loss."
Rusk described his late cousin as "a daredevil with no fear of anything." That meshed with Ross Dierking's career, a line of work that sometimes dealt with securing live explosives.
"Ross had energy," Rusk recalled with a wistful chuckle. "He was energy personified. Sometimes you see that spark in Robbie."
A father's influence
Robbie remembers nothing of his father.
"He's seen pictures, but he remembers the photos and not the actual events," Pat said. "He asks questions about his dad in little ways. If I serve him a new dish, he'll say, 'Did my dad like this?' If I say yes, he'll love it. If I say no on the same dish, it'll be, 'Eh.' "
The lack of memories doesn't stop Robbie from paying tribute to his father.
"When I go on the ice, I say in my mind, 'This is for you, Dad,' " Robbie said. "I think he can hear me. There are times when he holds me up.
"I think he'd be really, really proud of me."
Robbie doesn't have much contact with his mother. He hasn't seen her since Christmas 1999.
Pat declined to discuss the exact reason behind Un Suk Dierking's decision to send Robbie to Western New York, stating only that there was an unhealthy domestic situation in Tacoma.
But ever since Un Suk lost the fight to regain custody, she rarely has reached out to her son.
"She never calls him, but he calls her on occasion," Pat said. "He needs to know she's there and OK. I'm sorry that she doesn't initiate the contact."
Reached in Seattle, where she owns a deli, Un Suk Dierking expressed regret over not being able to see her son more. She has never watched him skate except on video.
"I can't tell how much (I miss him)," she said. "I'm sad I can't bring him back as my son. The time goes, and I think about his future. I want his dreams to come true. My heart always stays with him even though we don't live together.
"I'm so proud of him. And he tries so hard, and I just pray for him that his dreams come true. He's a really strong boy. I know he can do his dream of going to the Olympics."
Foundation of confidence
Robbie Dierking practices on the ice five days a week, some days for as long as 3 1/2 hours. He also takes ballet lessons once a week.
But Pat Dierking stressed he dedicates that much time by choice.
"Wherever it takes him, whatever he wants to do is fine with me as long as he's doing what makes him happy," she said. "If he wants to flip burgers at Burger King, that's just fine if he's happy.
"When I see that he stops loving it, or that he starts wishing that he didn't have to skate, then we'll have to rethink it. But he just adores it."
Skating has done so much more than make Robbie happy. It has provided him a significant foundation of confidence where there previously was little.
"You hate to think what could have happened," Pat Dierking said, referring to the litany of obstacles in her grandson's path.
"He's overcome a lot, and that makes him stronger. He doesn't give in to it. I think I worked pretty hard at first. He was a very frightened, shy little boy. It was quite a rude awakening when you're 6 to have to move across the country by yourself and live with Grandma. But I told him, 'This is life, and we're going on.'
"He was meek and timid, no self-esteem. If I would round the aisle at the grocery store, he would go into hysterics because he thought he was abandoned. A couple years later, I can't find him. I just started dressing him in bright colors so I could find him easier.
"He's kept me young. And busy. And tired."
Rusk, a former high school football coach in the Chicago area, also has played a part in Robbie's growth.
Robbie lists Todd Eldredge and Timothy Goebel as his skating heroes. But Rusk is Robbie's personal role model, providing insight and advice on competition and life.
"He's an amazing kid," Rusk said. "He's a role model for me as much as I am for him. Rob is a champion not only on the ice, but he carries that into his life.
"I always wondered, 'Does hardship build character?' Those challenges helped build his character, but he's also such a kind, sweet spirit.
"His awareness of life so exceeds other kids' and maybe even beyond (adults'). I think a lot of that I attribute to his grandmother. She's an exceptional parent."
Wyse called Pat Dierking "the rock in (Robbie's) life."
"She's definitely a whole bunch of help," Robbie said. "She does everything a parent should. She's loving, caring.
"I feel luckier than most kids. Their parents usually work, and my grandmother doesn't. She's always there when I need her. I can always count on her."