Kindergarten foray onto strange rink leads to Turkey's first Olympic skating berth

Updated: February 13, 2006, 9:45 AM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- As a kindergartner, Tugba Karademir ventured with her classmates onto the first full-size rink ever built in Turkey -- and started on a remarkable path that uprooted her family, tested her pluck and now has led her to Turin as her country's first figure skater to reach the Olympics.

A medal in the Feb. 23 ladies' final is not in the offing: Karademir finished 13th at the recent European Championships. Her goals, however, are not modest -- to skate her best and inspire other girls born far from the bastions of world-class skating to dream of following her into the sport.

"I hope they don't have to move away from their countries like I did," Karademir said after a practice session this week. "People shouldn't have to leave their homes to pursue their dreams."

Even as a 5-year-old in 1990, skating weekly with her classmates at the then-new rink in Ankara, it was clear that Karademir -- an only child -- had talent. By the time she was 12, and already a winner of a Balkans under-18 medal, her parents decided she should move abroad to obtain the best possible coaching.

Her mother gave up a job with Roketsan, a Turkish rocket and missile maker, and the two moved to Canada while Tugba's father stayed behind -- maintaining his restaurant business in Ankara in case his wife and daughter abandoned their adventure and opted to return home.

No relatives nor close friends awaited the Karademirs in Canada; there was no job lined up for the mother, no coach waiting for a new pupil. But within weeks, the two decided to settle in Barrie, Ontario, about 55 miles north of Toronto, so Tugba could enroll in a skating school with several topflight instructors, including her current coach Robert Tebby.

Her mother eventually got a job in Toronto with Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft-engine manufacturer. Her father -- after remaining for a year in Turkey -- sold his Ankara restaurants and made the move as well, now working as a chef; they are part of small Muslim community in Barrie.

"My parents were very brave," Tugba said. "It's been really hard for my father. When you own your own business, and then you have to go to work for someone else, it's not easy."

As a little girl in Ankara, Tugba tried to pursue both skating and dance -- she was in a youth program of the National Ballet. But at 10, she got an ultimatum from her dance teachers to choose between her passions.

"They said skating would ruin my ballet form," Tugba said. "It wasn't hard for me to choose. I'm very creative and in skating I can make up my own stuff."

She joined the Turkish national team, went into youth competition and won several medals, eventually prompting her parents' decision to move abroad.

"I was too small to know what was going on -- it was unreal to me," Tugba said. "I didn't know how difficult it would be."

She temporarily severed ties with the Turkish skating program, and got on the Canadian junior national team in 2000 as a 15-year-old.

She hoped to compete for Canada in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City but broke her ankle three weeks before the qualifying event. After returning to the ice, she contacted Turkish officials to say she wanted to skate for her native country.

"It's great to be Canadian -- anywhere you go, everybody loves you," said Tugba, who now has dual citizenship. "But the purpose in me going abroad was to train and skate for Turkey."

Her pride showed last Friday at the opening ceremonies, when the 20-year-old was the flag bearer leading five other Turkish athletes -- all skiers -- into the pulsating din at Turin's Olympic Stadium.

"I was in awe," she said. "This is the biggest thing I've ever done."

Whether it makes her a national hero remains to be seen.

"They're showing more skating on TV now in Turkey," she said. "But I'm not really a star. In the rink they know me, but I can walk down the street and no one does."

She hopes at least to be a role model for would-be Turkish skaters.

"It would be great if they could look at me and say, 'There's someone from here in the Olympics -- I'd like to do that," she said. "I don't want it to end after me, and for Turkish skating to disappear off the face of the planet."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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