Every figure skater understands that feeling of solitude that comes while standing all alone on a vast sheet of ice, waiting for the music to begin. Inside their hearts, though, they often carry a small army of helpmates who guided them to that place in the spotlight.
Molly Oberstar will be invisibly accompanied by a host of Minnesotans when she skates in the women's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. There are her longtime coaches, Zoe Hill and Heather Seyfer, and new mentor Ann Eidson. There's former choreographer Jill Scott, who molded her artistry. There are her parents, David and Barbara, who uncomplainingly financed a lifetime of skating, and uncle Vince Giorgi and aunt Marcia Appel, who welcome Molly and Barbara into their home four days a week during Molly's St. Paul training sessions.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a teeming metropolis to nurture a figure skater into a national contender. Oberstar, 19, will make her fourth trip to the U.S. championships -- and first at the senior level -- after pushing her talent to fresh heights with a little help from a lot of friends.
"I'm lucky to have such good coaches and so much support,'' said Oberstar, of Duluth. "Ever since I heard nationals were going to be in St. Paul, it's been my main goal to make it here. It's such an amazing experience, and it's going to be even better to be able to skate in front of family and friends.''
At 5-8, Oberstar is tall for a skater, and she combines the elegance and classical beauty of a ballerina with a captivating exuberance. She finished 11th in novice women at the 2004 nationals, then moved up to the junior level, where she placed seventh in 2005 and sixth in 2006.
Most skaters struggle with the transition to senior competition. Injuries further complicated Oberstar's shift last season, and after finishing sixth at the Midwestern Sectionals -- and missing the cut for the U.S. championships -- Oberstar sensed she needed a change.
Just not a radical one. Hill had coached her since Oberstar first showed promise in a learn-to-skate program as a 5-year-old at the Duluth Figure Skating Club. Oberstar wanted a place where she could train with other elite skaters in a serious environment without uprooting her family, and she found it at the St. Paul Figure Skating Club.
She skates there under Eidson's tutelage four days a week. Oberstar and her mother drive down from Duluth on Monday mornings, stay at her uncle's Lakeville home until Thursday, then drive back to Duluth for the weekend and one day of training with Hill and Seyfer.
"Last year was a hard year,'' said Oberstar, who deferred her enrollment at the University of Minnesota to devote this year to skating. "I lost my confidence, and I wasn't having as much fun. But I still had an incredible love for the sport. I knew I had the potential to go farther.''
So did Hill, who coached Oberstar to a first-place finish at this year's Upper Great Lakes Regionals.
"I miss not working with her on a daily basis,'' Hill said. "But this is the best thing for her skating at this point in her life. I'm happy it's worked out so well.''
Eidson, who has known Hill, Seyfer and Scott for years, saw her role as building upon the solid foundation they had given their young skater. Scott, Oberstar's first choreographer, had developed the artistry and abundant joy in the sport that shaped her charismatic presence on the ice. Hill and Seyfer nurtured her athleticism and stamina.
Upon joining the St. Paul club in September, Oberstar drew inspiration through training with U.S. junior champ Eliot Halverson. A consistent training regimen, and some subtle technical adjustments, strengthened Oberstar's jumps and fueled her confidence. She needed to place in the top four at both the regional and the Midwestern Sectional to make it to nationals. She won both.
"You could have heard a pin drop when she skated at Midwesterns,'' Eidson said. "Her skating was enchanting. She is just beautiful to watch.''
Oberstar's next goal is to increase her fan base with a strong performance at the U.S. championships. "I've never been so nervous about a result as I was at sectionals,'' she said. "My legs were shaking. I felt like I was going to faint. Then I saw my name at the top.
"I didn't expect to win. But I believed I had it in me. It feels great to feel happy about my skating again.''