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It figures: A senior moment Grand Island skater second youngest at nationals

JAMESTOWN -- Right now, it's the little things that excite her. The possibility of doing autograph booths and having young skaters ask her to sign their programs. The hospitality provided for the event, with food for competitors, a hotel right across the street from the rink and professionals to do her hair and makeup.

That's not why Taylor Firth is in the figure skating business, but those first-time perks sure are nice. Her enthusiasm is contagious and it offers a bit of relief, too. After all, she is only 15 years old and most other times exudes the poise and maturity of someone much older.

A little bit of enthrallment is expected from Firth, who will be the second youngest competitor at the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating senior ladies championships.

The Grand Island native who trains in Jamestown placed second at the Eastern Sectional Championships held in Atlanta, earning her a spot in the national championships Jan. 21-28 in Spokane, Wash., and a chance to skate against the likes of Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes.

According to co-coach Kirk Wyse, it's the first time since 1932 that a female skater from Western New York has advanced to the senior ladies national freestyle event. (Elizabeth Handley medaled in figures, which are no longer held, in 1998).

"It's still a little difficult for me to grasp. This is new being a senior lady and I didn't have high expectations," said Firth, who last year skated as a novice. "My original goal was to make it out of regionals and hopefully do my best at sectionals. I just really wanted to put on two good programs and see where I could be amongst the other girls.

"I did exactly what I needed to do. . . . All the extra time definitely paid off. If I had any doubts, I knew that I had done this almost every day in practice. So I wasn't too nervous because [my coaches] trained me very well."

While her life is atypical for a teenage girl, it's pretty routine as far as elite figure skaters go.

Several mornings a week, she works with a physical therapist then attends her version of school -- home school with a tutor and her two younger sisters -- for the rest of the morning.

By 12:15 she and her family are on the road, making the two-hour trek to Jamestown, where Firth begins her training regimen.

There's three hours on the ice, including an hour of instruction, then usually dry land training -- from ballet to Pilates to cardio conditioning -- all at the impressive facility at the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena.

But it wasn't so long ago when Taylor seemed like the last person to make such sacrifices for time at the rink. The second oldest of the four Firth girls, all of whom are still skating and three of whom are still competing, Taylor was the last of the group to take up figure skating. She originally wanted to do gymnastics but around age 7 she found she missed the camaraderie of her family, and the physical presence of her mother, while she was training.

"At first, she was really afraid of the ice," her mother, Patti, said. "But at gymnastics, the moms weren't allowed to stay and watch and at skating I always stayed and watched. I would bring her to gymnastics and have to leave her. When I took her sisters to skating, I would stay and she sort of liked the idea of me being there so she finally decided to try it."

She started skating at a program at Dwyer Arena at Niagara University and did well in an intraclub competition. Don Mitchell, a coach, spotted her, saw the athletic potential, and took her under his wing.

Then, once Firth started learning jumps -- and mastering them quickly -- she fell in love with the sport.

"I think when I started jumping I really got hooked," Firth said. "I love spinning in the air. I love the feel of flying around. I love being on show. . . . I'm definitely the type of person who likes to show off. On the ice, I'm not embarrassed."

So much of figure skating is selling the program, smiling and looking as if the moves come not only effortlessly but enjoyably. Firth's showmanship, her ability to sell the program to the crowd, is one of her strengths.

Her jumps are natural and her spins are sound, say her coaches, Wyse and Lenel VanDenBerg. They cite her natural athleticism, noting that at 5-foot-4 she could really do well at any sport she chose because of her strength and agility.

Firth also has strong mental skills -- a focus and determination that often separates the elite athletes from the wannabes.

"Not only is she doing the physical work every day but she's doing the work mentally," said Kellie Peiper, who works with Firth as a sports psychology consultant. "She's working on her confidence and positive self-talk -- all the things that train her brain to be in the zone, in the moment, and focus on the task at hand."

While her confidence is high, her expectations are realistic. This is, after all, her first trip to the senior nationals and at just age 15, there's plenty of time to enjoy the spectacle and learn from competing against the best.

"My goal this year is to skate my best and see where I'm placing among these girls and see where I need to improve -- spins, jumps, choreography, whatever," Firth said. "Possibly in the years to come I'll hopefully have a higher standard but this year I think for me is more of a learning experience. Just to get the energy from everyone else, I'm really excited about it."

Her ability to embrace the experience without expectations of results comes from the firm grounding she receives from her family -- parents Patti and Michael, the third generation owner of Firth Jewelers in Niagara Falls, and sisters Shannon, 17, Chelsea, 13, and Sierra, 11 -- and from her faith.
There is also the financial support: ice time at $10 per hour per person, at least one hour of lessons per day at $72 per hour, choreography fees, skates, costumes and traveling to Jamestown and competitions. The total could exceed $30,000 annually for each child in competition, which could put the Firth family investment at close to $100,000 a year.

"I have a very strong support system," Firth said. "My family is amazing and my sisters are so awesome to me. They have a fun time with me. Sometimes they tease me but they also get excited for me. We're very close.

"The one thing we do before I compete is we pray and ask for a calming spirit so I can do my best. That's definitely a major, major thing, my faith. It gives me the extra bit of security that no matter what, God already has everything planned out for me and I don't have to worry about it."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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