When the U.S. Figure Skating Champion-ships come to St. Paul next week, much of the focus will fall on the teenagers striving to become their sport's next superstar. Angie Lien never held such lofty ambitions.
Instead, she opted for longevity. The Duluth skater will celebrate her 27th birthday Wednesday, two months after qualifying for the national championships for the fifth time. Her performance at Xcel Energy Center likely will be among the last in a career that began before some of this year's contenders were born.
For the second year in a row, Lien will be the oldest skater in the women's competition at the U.S. championships. She has endured for two reasons: her deep love for the sport, and her well-balanced approach to life. During Lien's skating career, she finished high school, earned a degree in exercise science at Minnesota Duluth and began coaching at the Duluth Figure Skating Club -- where some of her students aren't much younger than the favorites in the U.S. championship field.
"I definitely have days where I think, 'Wow, I feel old out here today,'" Lien said. "I'm a little more comfortable with it now. I love being around the girls, and the younger ones make me feel young at heart.
"I was definitely not the type of kid who wanted to go to the Olympics. I just wanted to work hard and make progress and have something else in my life besides skating. It worked out really well. The fun I've had, and the friends I've made, have been great."
Since last summer, Lien has been training with coach Damon Allen at the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs. Its emphasis on developing elite competitors --including 15-year-old Rachael Flatt, who is expected to challenge for the U.S. title -- has enabled Lien to focus more intently on preparing for her final national championships.
A Superior start
Lien's heart remains in her hometown of Superior, Wis., and her home club. Her mother, Sue, has taught in the Duluth club's learn-to-skate program for 20 years and is its director. A former competitive skater and show performer, Sue encouraged Angie to enjoy the ice but didn't push her to live on it.
Angie, in turn, kept her expectations simple. A self-described tomboy, she loved to jump and finished 14th at the 1999 nationals. She has remained one of the Midwest's top senior competitors since then, finishing 20th last year and 15th in 2005 at her two most recent U.S. championships.
Along the way, she was forced to take time off because of injuries, and she made time for school, including five months of study abroad. While that kept her schedule packed, it also kept her from getting burned out on skating.
"I love to skate, and I love the challenge it brings," Lien said. "The time away from it helped me appreciate it that much more. I didn't skate as many sessions as some of the kids I competed against, but I got my work done. And in the long run, you have to do what benefits you most."
Her parents helped Angie finance her skating while she was in college. She paid her school expenses with loans and her income from coaching. To this day, Sue Lien isn't sure how her daughter juggled classes, competition and coaching.
"She's very organized, and she likes to be busy," Sue Lien said. "She did what was right for her, even though it was really hard. She's a role model for people who want to have a life outside of skating."
One more year
Angie originally thought she would retire from competition last year. At the end of the season, she felt ready to try for one last national appearance in her home region. With the help of choreographer Tom Dickson, who has helped her make great strides in her artistry, Lien has had a satisfying season.
She plays an evil queen in her short program, set to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue." Her free skate, to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," evokes a '70's hippie vibe. In the Upper Great Lakes Regional and Midwestern Sectional, she found a new mental strength that helped her overcome mistakes, a quality she hopes will carry over to nationals.
A large group of friends and family will be there, as will some of Lien's young students, who will have the rare opportunity to cheer for their coach.
"One of the things that's kept her going all these years is that she always finds something to improve," longtime coach Zoe Hill said. "That's one of the things she's passed along to the kids. Having watched her grow up, I'm very proud of everything she's done."