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Kim Navarro continues to surprise, even herself

El Molino grad goes from spindly-legged Woodstock to world championships

Kim Navarro and partner Brent Bommentre skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., in January 2007.

ELAINE THOMPSON / Associated Press
Published: Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 3:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 3:31 a.m.

Technically speaking, Kim Navarro made her professional figure-skating debut at age 10 and shared the rink with former Olympic gold medalists Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins.

But she wasn't another pig-tailed pixie on a fast track to her own Olympic glory.

Instead of sequins, Navarro was dressed in a yellow costume with feathers, an outfit topped by a famous bird's head. Her mom, Lisa, recalls that her daughter made a perfect Woodstock -- the character from the "Peanuts" comic strip -- because she had such "little, tiny, skinny legs."

Looking back on the Christmas show at Santa Rosa's Redwood Empire Ice Arena, Navarro, 26, says it is precisely the type of memory that helped shape a unique career path that's led her and ice-dancing partner Brent Bommentre to the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin Monday in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Years ago, the Ice Arena, commonly known as "Snoopy's Home Ice," was a place where Charles Schultz would lock the doors early so a kids-only inline-skating contest could begin. It was a place where Robin Cousins helped Navarro with her homework backstage and Dorothy Hamill let her baby-sit her daughter.

Lisa Navarro, a former professional pairs skater, is a longtime instructor at Snoopy's. Kim grew up understanding that figure skating required training and sacrifice. And that it also included fun.

"I don't know if I had grown up in a training center if I would have loved skating as much as I do," said Navarro, who lives in Philadelphia. "Being a part of things like that show and helping entertain people was such an amazing experience."

Navarro is still entertaining fans. But the stage is much larger.

She and Bommentre, 23, her partner of three years, won the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minn., in February to qualify for their first Worlds. The performance has elevated their status and eased a financial strain that has forced Navarro to work as a part-time skating instructor and caterer during her career.

Thanks to their breakthrough at the U.S. Championships, Navarro and Bommentre, ranked 17th in the world, have received additional funding from U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Olympic Committee, money they plan to invest in their career. In April, they will work with a top-level choreographer in Los Angeles in an effort to polish programs that have become more daring and complex in the past year.

"They're getting to a level where more doors are starting to open up," said their coach, Robbie Kaine. "The sky is the limit with them."

Navarro has reached such a level by taking a road not often traveled in the figure-skating world.

Instead of devoting herself full-time to her sport after graduating from El Molino High, Navarro attended Columbia University in New York, where she graduated cum laude with a major in English and a minor in dance.

Her decision wasn't hard. She had experienced a life devoted almost entirely to skating when she left El Molino as a sophomore to train with an elite-level partner in Texas. The lifestyle didn't suit her. She was never the type to have her happiness hinge on her next double axel. After seven months, she returned to Santa Rosa.

For Navarro, her ability wasn't a question. She had qualified for the U.S. Junior Nationals at 11 in pairs skating. The next year, she reached the Junior Nationals in pairs and ice dance. At 14, she competed as a novice in ice dance at the U.S. Championships and finished 10th.

But after her eye-opening experience in Texas, she was more committed than ever to having a balanced life.

"I thought, I'm not going to be just focused on skating until I have a college degree under my belt," Navarro said. "I wanted to be a well-rounded person. I didn't have huge plans for my career. I just wanted to be skating. I didn't realize I could do the things I'm doing now."

It helped that her partner at the time, Robert Shmalo, shared her perspective. Shmalo had graduated from New York University and was attending law school.

Despite their schedules, the pair still competed in Germany, Croatia, Finland and Japan when Navarro was in college and had a pair of sixth-place finishes at the U.S. Championships. Her workload sounds daunting. But Navarro shares her secret for maintaining her skating career while pursuing a double major at an Ivy League college. "A lot of coffee," she explains.

After 2003, Shmalo retired from skating to become a lawyer and Navarro, who graduated in 2004, worked at the Ice Theatre of New York, a group of professional figure skaters who perform dance choreography.

In 2005, she went to Pennsylvania for what was, in effect, a job interview. Bommentre needed a partner and knew Navarro was in the same situation.

Kaine, then Bommentre's coach, met with Navarro and asked her why she wanted to pursue the partnership.

"She said, 'I know you want me to say I'm doing this so I can go to the Olympics,' " Kaine recalled. " ' . . . But that's not why I'm doing this. The real reason is because I don't think I've reached my full potential yet.' "

Three years later, both Bommentre and Navarro, who train in Pennsylvania and Delaware, are realizing their potential.

Even if they couldn't be more opposite.

Bommentre, a rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan, is consumed with the athletic aspect of ice dancing. Skating faster, Navarro says with a laugh, is one of his primary concerns. He is a natural performer and is the one to deliver stirring pep talks backstage prior to critical programs.

In contrast, Navarro is more concerned with the story behind their programs. Because of her background, her understanding of music interpretation and the proper movement to music is extensive. Not surprisingly, it was her idea to have Bommentre wear a skirt for their original dance program, which has an African folk theme. She is more prone to pre-skate jitters, but has a broad perspective. She doesn't often stress over a difficult practice session.

"I get more frustrated on a daily basis," Bommentre said. "If I make a mistake on a twizzle (turn), I'm not a happy person. Basically, Kim has a sense of humor and I don't."

Navarro, who lives with her boyfriend of three years, Mark Freeman, trains about 25 to 30 hours a week, a schedule that requires a narrow focus she still struggles with. She volunteers at a local elementary school once a week to teach a dance class to a group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds.

Navarro craves a more balanced life. But she understands it will have to wait.

Her quest to realize her potential may not end anytime soon.

"Sometimes it's difficult to be so focused on skating, I have a problem with my whole world being a little smaller," Navarro said. "But I have to realize this is just a small window in my life. I have this opportunity because of the choices I made. And this is a time in my life I get to have."

You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at 521-5268 or eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com.

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