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It’s desire and dedication that power two African-American skaters on the ice

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Kassy Kova and Justin Ross are gliding along effortlessly. Their red noses give away the temperature inside the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa. Their red cheeks give away the energy they expend as she twists and turns into him, as he lifts her, as they move in perfect unison.

Kassy, 15 today, and Justin, 17, have been at it now for more than an hour and a half. It’s 5:45 – a.m.

Where many teenagers have trouble getting out of bed to get to school at 7:30, these two are on the ice at 4:15. Every weekday morning. And they like it.

“We love it,” they say in unison, laughing.

Their eyes are on the prize: ice dancing in the Olympics.

Between now and then will be many more early mornings like those of the past three years.

They are the only African-American ice dancing team in the country. There are other African-American ice dancers, but they don’t have African-American partners. Kassy and Justin are beginning a new season of competition, moving into a new and tougher realm where hundreds of hopefuls compete to become one of the three teams the United States sends to the Olympics.

To get there, they endure hours and hours of practice, aerobic workouts, weight training, ballet and ballroom dance lessons. Their next big competition is the Lake Placid Ice Dancing Championships in New York starting July 30.

Justin was a recreational skater, hitting the ice for fun. Kassy was way ahead of him.

“At 13 or 14 he decided he liked skating and he wanted to pursue it,” his mother, Becky Ross, recalls.

It was during one of his morning freestyle skating practices that Kassy’s mom, Suzan Cioffi, spotted him.

“He skated hard, had lots of enthusiasm, the right physique, the right look and desire in his eyes,” she recalls.

Cioffi liked what she saw and made her move. This was no time to be shy. One look at the Web site, and you know why. Last week, for example, 296 girls were looking for partners. The number of boys on the site totaled 94. Cioffi approached Justin and asked him to consider becoming Kassy’s partner.

“He turned us down flat,” says Cioffi, who acknowledges, with a laugh, that she has a strong personality. “I think he was scared to death.”

Cioffi says Kassy tried working with a couple of other boys, but it didn’t work out. And Cioffi kept thinking about how good Justin and Kassy would look together.

Both are biracial, with identical skin tones. Cioffi thought they appeared to have identical high energy and dedication. If he could catch up to Kassy in skill, it would be more than half the battle. Kassy had fallen in love with ice dancing. She needed a partner, and Cioffi worried that she’d have to send her daughter to Michigan or the East Coast, where ice skating reigns, and hope she would find a partner and not become too homesick.

“Five months later, we went back at him again,” Cioffi says.

“We never had expected him to have this opportunity,” says Ross, Justin’s mom. “When Kassy and her mother approached us, it made him totally rethink his life. He’s decided this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life.”

In May of 2005, they started working out a little, then spent the entire summer learning how to be partners.

“At first, they were strapped together with a belt,” Cioffi recalls. “There are so many awkward moments in ice dancing.”

The sport is defined as ballroom dancing on ice. Unlike pairs skating, there are no high overhead lifts among other technical nuances.

Justin is the first to admit how much he had to learn. Kassy was way ahead of him, working on the mandatory components for competitive skating.

Competitive skaters must go through a series of tests, proving to the U.S Figure Skating Association that they are ready for the next level. There are five: juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior and senior. Seniors go to the Olympics – if they qualify. After three years together, Kassy and Justin have just moved into novice level.

At the Junior Nationals in Salt Lake City in November, they placed seventh out of 24 ice dancing teams in the intermediate level of competition. Getting there was hard work and some hard knocks.

“They had a really bad fall during a lift,” Cioffi recalls. “Kassy hit the wall on one side and skidded all the way across the rink. They both got up and finished their program and that was it.”

It was disheartening after all their hard work, all the times they had done their routines flawlessly. Cioffi says it’s not unusual for mistakes like that to be followed by finger-pointing, anger and even the breakup of skating partnerships.

“They hugged each other and said they’d do better next year,” Cioffi recalls. “Kassy cried for two solid days.”

And then she put the nightmare behind her. When they got home from Cleveland, they went back to work.

Despite the way they look at each other on the ice, the daily close contact, the natural attraction that occurs at this age, theirs is a platonic relationship.

“We are pretty much brother and sister,” Justin says. “We tease each other and have a lot of fun together.”

Obviously atypical teenagers, their social life is the ice rink. And each other.

“I’m just as glad they’re best friends,” Ross says. “They have a great relationship. When Kassy goes to Disneyland, she asks to take Justin along. They have movie nights. Both of them love ‘The Sims’ and play it on the computer.”

Justin spends a lot of time at the rink, not only skating but also teaching skating to children. Kassy splits her time between skating and modeling.

To make room for all the coaching and dancing and skating, Justin and Kassy don’t attend traditional high school. Justin recently finished his requirements for graduation at San Diego Charter School and Kassy will finish in June.

Both will attend community college, working toward their degrees while keeping the flexibility to train.

“When he was a sophomore, he tried to do marching band and ice skating and that didn’t work,” his mom says. He was getting home at 11 from band and getting up before the crack of dawn for skating. He put his baritone horn down and never looked back.

Both he and Kassy acknowledge the price of living their dream is high.

There’s the cost of training, the cost of testing in front of judges, the cost of competing in cities near and mostly far, the cost of equipment.

“His skates cost over $1,000,” Justin’s mom says, “and they don’t last a year. If you’re lucky, and take care of your blades, you can buy new boots for $750 and put your old blades on. And we’re talking mid-range boots. He paid for his last pair of boots.”

Then, there is the clothing, and the competition boots.

“His dance boots are a pair Suzan bought him,” Ross says, noting that complex measurements were taken and sent to a manufacturer who constructed a boot specifically for his foot.

“You know, the reality is, as a single parent with three kids, I could not have afforded it, says Ross, an emergency room nurse.

“In more than half of the relationships, the girl’s family is picking up the load,” Cioffi says. The director of the UCSD Retirement Resource Center, she, too, is a single parent. She figures it has cost her $150,000 over the past three years. It’s come from the equity in her home.

Cioffi and her two daughters live two blocks from Ross, her daughter and twin sons in Mira Mesa, with the Ice Arena in between. Cioffi opens the Ice Arena every morning. She stands behind the counter, ready to help skaters and coaches as they wander in, but her focus is on just two out on the ice.

“Eyes up, Kassy,” says Suzy Semanick Schurman as the pair practice a routine. Semanick Schurman is a three-time national ice dance champion who finished sixth at the 1988 Olympics with partner Scott Gregory. She takes Kassy and Justin through their paces for an hour every morning after their warm-up.

“I like the weight to be a little more in the heel on the ending,” she says, demonstrating the move for the teenagers. “Now, one more time.”

Frank Sinatra’s voice is singing “Luck Be a Lady,” from “Guys and Dolls,” as the teenagers try again.

“Yes!” Semanick Schurman says. Her smile is permission for them to grin happily, too.

Both say they will go as far as they can in ice dancing. Skating is their passion, despite the teasing that started for Justin in middle school.

“They said, ‘Oh, he must be gay.’ It used to really hurt him,” his mother recalls.

“Kids can be really mean when they want to be,” Justin says. “It used to bother me, but now it’s like they’re not people I respect so why let it bug me? And they have no idea how much work it is.”

After the lesson, they practice for a half hour and then head to an upstairs studio for a half hour of ballet with Kathy Carbone. Skates off and slippers on, they pirouette, do grinding stretches at a waist-high bar and attempt intricate footwork.

“Kassy, chin up, honey,” Carbone urges gently. “Shoulders down, Justin.”

After an energy bar and a 15-minute break, they’re back on the ice for 45 minutes of choreography work with Wendy Smith, the Ice Arena’s skating school director. She skates behind them, intently watching, correcting.

The ice is more crowded now, and Smith has Justin put on an orange belt, the sign to other skaters that the pair has the right of way while they run through their routine.

“One more time,” comes the familiar refrain and they move out again, gliding and turning to music from “Porgy and Bess.”

It’s 8 a.m. and a Monday, so they’re off with Cioffi in rush-hour traffic to the Toby Wells YMCA for an hour of aerobics and conditioning, which they do three times a week. Five hours after they started their training day, they’re done. Later in the week, there will be two ballroom dance classes.

“We want to go to the Olympics in 2014,” Kassy says. “I’ve wanted this for a really long time.

Like so many, she was inspired by those before her.

“I saw the ice dancers and said, ‘Wow, I really want to do that. I wasn’t a great freestyle skater, too tall and awkward,” she says with a laugh. “I got called ‘spaghetti noodle.’ When I started looking into ice dancing, I saw that lots of them are tall.”

She and Justin have a dream, the kind that makes them get out of bed, day after day, different from the dreams enjoyed by their sleeping peers.

“If you want it bad enough,” Kassy says, “you’re willing to sacrifice.”

SOURCE: Sign On San Diego


Written by Symphony

May 8, 2008 at 5:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I will definitely be looking out for these two. I look forward to seeing them ice dance.


    May 10, 2008 at 3:50 am

  2. […] along effortlessly. Their red noses give away the temperature inside the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira…Kassy Kova ?? Blogs, Pictures, and more on WordPressKassy kova and Justin Ross are gliding along […]

    kassy kova

    July 18, 2008 at 9:46 am

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