Tom Incantalupo had been in his new job all of two weeks when he realized he had made a terrible mistake. Not becoming a coach for the prestigious St. Paul Figure Skating Club. He was jazzed about that. What haunted him was what he left behind -- or, rather, who.
So he got in his car and drove more than six hours back to Omaha where he and his wife, Katie, had trained young skaters for eight years. He pulled into the driveway of a familiar ranch-style home and rang the bell. Susan Abou-Nasr answered.
"I made a mistake," he told her. "We need to talk about this."
A few weeks later, Abou-Nasr's 13-year-old daughter, Samiera, was spending the summer with the Incantalupos in St. Paul and training with Tom to see if she could handle the rigors of becoming a true contender. By fall, her parents had their answer. They said goodbye to a large extended family and friends cultivated over more than 20 years in Omaha. They were moving to St. Paul, too.
"I've never taught anybody like her," Incantalupo, 37, said of Samiera, who competes today in the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Xcel Energy Center, or just "the Nationals" in skater-speak. "There's a kind of fearless way about her."
Samiera was born in Omaha into a big and loving extended family. Susan, a native Nebraskan, has two grown children from a previous marriage and four grandchildren. Her husband, Bassam, or "Sam," was born in Lebanon and raised in Saudi Arabia.
The couple met when Sam was studying computer science at the University of Nebraska.
Over the years, his parents and six siblings moved from the Middle East to Omaha, where all the children earned college degrees and most worked in the food industry.
Samiera cherished growing up with so many cousins around her age, and she developed a sophisticated palate for grape leaves, tabbouleh and hummus. (And, yes, she spent much of her formative years patiently spelling and pronouncing her name for teachers.)
At 5, after watching Kristi Yamaguchi perform and deciding that she could do that, she talked her parents into paying for lessons.
Incantalupo met his wife, the former Katie Wahlquist of Edina, in Des Moines, where both coached skating. They moved to Omaha after a few years, seeking a bigger venue. He remembers the first time he saw Samiera.
"She was learning forward crossovers," recalls the solidly built, good-natured coach, his Brooklyn accent only slightly toned down after a dozen years in the Midwest. "She was stumbling through the basics, skating backwards, forwards, falling," he said, "but still [there was] that smile. It's the smile of someone who wants to do more."
The Abou-Nasrs soon approached Incantalupo about one-on-one coaching for Samiera. The two started a weekly private lesson, which grew to two, then three. They've been together since, him setting goals, her surpassing them. She had all the marks of a champion: grace, beauty, speed, jumping height, unstoppable drive and the enviable confidence reserved for the young.
"The rush of competing, that's what I like most," said Samiera, whose living-room china cabinet is stuffed with medals and trophies. "I like jumping. Spinning is a lot of fun, too."
Last month during practice, she performed the difficult Biellmann spin, a crowd favorite in which a skater lifts her free leg above her head and grabs onto her skate blade. "It was pretty simple for me," Samiera said. "Usually, people can't get it over their head."
That fearlessness came through again in practice the day after Christmas. Dressed in festive red-and-white polka dots, she flew into the air and fell hard on her rump. Incantalupo, who coaches about 12 other students at varying levels, stifled a laugh, skated toward her. And waited.
"They usually figure out in the middle of the air that something went wrong," he said dryly. Still, he let her tell him what it was, instead of the other way around. "It shows me she's feeling what she's supposed to be feeling."
Does she ever ignore him? "You mean, does she ever become a teenage girl? Yes, she does. I move on to my next student, leave her alone for a little while. They eventually figure out it might be a good idea to be nice to the coach."
Suddenly, she was flying into the air again, landing a perfect triple Salchow.
"That was nice," he told her, not overly enthusiastically. "Feel good?"
Incantalupo laughed when asked whether a person is born with a talent such as Samiera's. A national competitor himself as a teen ("50 pounds ago," he jokes), he answered by tipping Samiera's chin upward to reveal a tiny scar. "She's had stitches multiple times," he said.
One of his favorite Samiera stories:
At about 7, Samiera was training for her first regional competition. She went up for a jump, caught her edge and, wham!, came down on her chin, splitting it open. He dropped by her house later that morning with a sandwich and a suggestion: "Maybe you should take a few days off. You need some rest."
He returned to the rink a few hours later. There was Samiera, he said, "skating with stitches hanging out of her chin. No Band-Aid."
Moving on, or trying to
When Incantalupo was offered the plum position with the St. Paul Figure Skating Club two years ago, he couldn't refuse. The club is considered a destination spot for top skaters, including U.S. Junior Champion Eliot Halverson. He found coaches for all of his Omaha skaters. Samiera came over to say goodbye, bringing an engraved pocket watch for Tom and a jewelry box for Katie. "Nobody had developed those bonds with us like Samiera had," Katie said.
The Incantalupos bought a home in Woodbury and looked ahead to a new life. Or tried to. "There was a void there," said Katie. "I told [Tom], 'We need to do something, say something.' I'm very proud he went back there and talked to her family."
Mom was proud, too. "It brought tears to my eyes to think that someone thought that much about my daughter," said Susan Abou-Nasr, who now works at Macalester College. "He knew that Omaha wasn't the training center that St. Paul is."
The Abou-Nasrs sat their daughter down, just as they had many times over the years. Is this what you want? they asked. Skating already made "normal life" hard to attain. Samiera had to give up band, rarely slept in or went to slumber parties. Now she'd be moving away from her family and friends.
Samiera, all 5-feet-2¼ of her, wanted to try. "Honestly, this is a normal life for me," she told them, "because I've been doing it all my life." After two weeks in St. Paul, she said, "I kind of forgot about skating in Omaha."
Mother and daughter moved into a townhouse in Woodbury that September, and Samiera began eighth grade at Woodbury Junior High School. They put up a little pink Christmas tree in December ("It was just us girls," Susan said with a laugh). Sam sold most of their possessions and joined them in the spring, leaving behind his extended family. Now executive chef at the Science Museum of Minnesota, he has no regrets.
"You love your daughter, you love your wife," he said. "My mom and dad did the same thing, moved to be with us. We just passed it on."
Today's the day
Last year, Incantalupo and Samiera laid out their goals: Regionals, Sectionals, Nationals. "I made the whole schedule," Samiera said proudly. Qualifying for Nationals means that Samiera is one of the top 12 skaters at her level (novice) in the country, something that "only one in about every 2,000 skaters" attains, Incantalupo said.
Chloe Ginsburg, 15, Samiera's best friend since kindergarten, misses seeing her friend on a daily basis in Omaha, but knows the move was the right one. "I knew she was really into it. I think it's been good for her," said Chloe, who keeps in touch via Facebook. "Samiera is one of the most amazing, creative, do-it-all people I know. She can handle everything."
So, what does Samiera hope to handle today?
"It would be nice to say that I'm in the top 10 in the country," she said. Her coach is reaching higher: "Top six. But she's already achieved her goal by just being able to compete at Nationals." Whatever happens, Samiera can't wait to get out on the ice.
"I thought I might not be ready," Samiera said, "but I'm definitely ready."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350