Sometimes dreams really do come true. Just ask Michelle Mitchell, a top-ranked national tennis prodigy and Rob Dierking, a national gold medalist in figure skating. Since these talented athletes were profiled in NeXt last year, they have seen their hard work bring them one step closer to realizing their ultimate goals.
Michelle, 13, of Amherst, is one of four 14-and-under teens chosen to represent the United States on an international tennis team. She'll be playing in tournaments in Teen Tennis (England) and Les Petits As (France) this winter.
Rob, 12, of Jamestown is the top intermediate level men's skater in the United States, after winning the gold medal at Junior Nationals in Colorado in December.
Both are excited about their recent accomplishments, but are quick to point out they still have a long way to go to reach long-term goals.
"I was really hoping to be chosen for the International Team," admits Michelle. "I played well in the Junior Orange Bowl in December. I felt pretty confident going into it, and I felt I had a chance to do well when I saw the competition.
"There were lots of agents and scouts watching the tournament all week, as well as national coaches for the United States Tennis Association. I didn't know they were picking the international team that week, so I didn't really pay much attention to them. I just tried to play my best.
"It's pretty neat to be representing the United States! I'm very excited to go to Europe because I've never been there. I hope to gain experience and confidence from playing kids from all over the world. Kids outside of the United States play a little differently, I think. They are a little feistier and hungrier to win, maybe because their training conditions aren't as good as ours, and that makes me play better."
Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova were previous winners at Les Petits As. This year 64 countries will be represented, and more than 30,000 spectators will watch the best young tennis players in the world.
Pretty heady stuff for someone only 13. Yet Michelle says, "I don't let the pressure get to me. There are a lot of important tournaments during the year, so in the back of my mind, I know there's always another chance."
After the tournaments, Michelle will return to the VanDerMeer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, S.C., where she trains during the winter. In March she'll play in the Spring Fling in Georgia, and in April, the Easter Bowl in California.
Rob Dierking won almost every figure skating competition he entered last year. He was last year's National Juvenile Boys champion, and in July, won the gold in Intermediate Men's at Wissahickon, near Philadelphia. In August, he finished first at Skate Chautauqua. At North Atlantic Regionals in Amherst in October, he won the regional title, successfully landing difficult triple jump/double jump combinations to earn a spot at Junior Nationals in December.
Yet Rob says it wasn't just the jumps that helped him to continue his success.
"I had been doing those jumps all year," he explains. "I was really concentrating on improving my style and paying more attention to the whole program and the connecting moves. My short program (or technical program) was very fast and upbeat. I skated to 'Sabredance.' My long program was very different. The music was 'Strictly Ballroom,' and I really had to focus on doing all the elements just right. There were lots of sharp movements right on the music, so the style was really important."
"I'm always thinking about the next step," admits Rob. "This season, I hope to get my triple axel, which I've already started working on. I also want to continue to work on my style. I know next year will be harder, but I'm only 12 years old, and I know I have lots of time to get to where I want to be. I plan to work and train hard."
"I'm really happy with the way I skated at Junior Nationals. When I won the long program and finished first overall out of 36 skaters from all over the United States, my first thought was, "Now I get to move up to Novice!"(In skating, the best Novice level skaters get to compete at the National Figure Skating Championships, along with the best Junior and Senior level skaters.)
Rob recently returned from a trip to Senior Nationals in Boston, where he was able to watch the novice and junior men. "My coaches wanted me to see what it was like, what the level of competition was like. So now I know what I have to do to be successful at the next level."
For Michelle and Rob, each new level of play or competition represents new challenges and new goals. But for now, for them, dreams really do come true.