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Skater dancing way into contention for Olympic berth

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- During a practice session at the Detroit Skating Club five years ago, Jamie Silverstein sat down on the ice, unable to continue.

The act was remarkable because Silverstein, then an accomplished 17-year-old ice dancer who had won the Junior World Championships with her partner Justin Pekarek the year before, wasn't the type to stop moving.

She stood out, even in a sport full of gorgeous, gifted people. The rink was her stage, a place to tell a story with her graceful physique, long-lashed hazel eyes and charismatic Little Dipper of a smile.

But Silverstein's body, weakened by an eating disorder, had finally broken down to the point where her spirit couldn't carry it.

She quit skating and entered therapy but wasn't hospitalized. "I probably should have been," she says now. She trained briefly with another partner but never competed with him.

The thoughtful, multi-talented Silverstein channeled her drive elsewhere. She began to practice yoga to strengthen her body and mind and became a certified instructor. She was accepted at Cornell University and designed her own major, a blend of anthropology, literature and art therapy called "Catharsis across culture and context." She earned two years of credit in 18 months.

In her spare time, Silverstein worked as a resident dorm advisor. She decided she would be open about her past experience and visited sororities to talk about eating disorders. But when she went to a college hockey game, the mere sight of the ice unnerved her and she left early.

Late last year, Silverstein decided she wanted to try to conquer that fear. She got her skates out of the car trunk where they'd been languishing since she left for college, and examined the rusty blades. She asked her mother to go to the rink with her. Then Silverstein laced up her boots and had her own catharsis.

"I'm not going to lie and say we're not body conscious," Silverstein said of her sport, "but I didn't want that to be a reason for me not to try."

Silverstein is back in motion, and she and partner Ryan O'Meara are dancing their way into contention for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. The pair, who have trained together at the Arctic Edge club in Canton, Mich., since last February, finished fifth Saturday at Skate America, the first important international event of the season. Their next major competition will be the U.S. national championships in January.

The United States has three ice dancing slots in Turin thanks to a strong performance at the 2005 world championships. Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov placed 10th and Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto won the silver medal, the first for the United States in 20 years.

Belbin and Agosto showed they are still in top form with a win at Skate America, but the duo's chances of competing at the Olympics rest on the slim hope that Belbin, who is Canadian, succeeds in accelerating her U.S. citizenship application through a legislative change in the next several months.

Several other dance teams could be in the mix for Turin. O'Meara, who finished third at the U.S. national championships last season with his former partner Lydia Manon, said he and Silverstein are trying not to get ahead of themselves.

"For sure, it's in the back of our minds, but it's easier for us to take smaller steps," he said.

O'Meara and Silverstein were matched up by their coach, Igor Shpilband, who with coaching partner Marina Zoueva works with many of the top couples. Silverstein called Shpilband last January during the U.S. nationals and told him she wanted to start training again.

The 21-year-old O'Meara, who grew up in Arizona, was dealing with hurt of his own, having been ditched by Manon after nationals. Pairing with Silverstein, who turns 22 in December, when she was still an unknown quantity was "a little bit of a chance -- but at the time it seemed like the right chance to take," he said.

After a three-week tryout, O'Meara was sold. "From the minute I skated with her, I knew no one else who would come close," he said. "If I wanted to improve and do great things this season it was going to have to be with her."

Silverstein said she simply told herself to "keep showing up and being OK" to prove she was ready.

Shpilband said he never doubted Silverstein's resolve, and has not treated her differently than any other top skater. He and Zoueva said the two haven't missed a day of training since they teamed up.

That training isn't all ballet and ballroom steps, either. Silverstein and O'Meara and the other couples they train with put parachutes on their backs and skate full-out "kill drills" to increase their strength and stamina.

Discussion of eating disorders in ice dancing, where appearance can become a fixation, is usually limited to whispered rumors and knowing asides. Silverstein has opted to be up front about her past, although she declines to talk about certain details, like how much she weighed when she stopped skating.

"I'm sorry that I went through it, but it happened, and I'm proud of the steps I've taken to get out of that place," she said. "I see other people grappling with these things and I felt like the more I opened up, the more they opened up and felt better. We all have our stuff. If everyone admitted they were flawed, everyone would feel OK and we could stop pretending that things were perfect."

Still, numbers, scrutiny and comparisons are inescapable. Silverstein chose to mention her illness in her official biography in the U.S. Figure Skating media guide, which also lists her height and weight (5 feet 3, 103 pounds) as it does for all male and female competitors. Women ice dancers compete in sexy, form-fitting outfits with revealing cutouts and plunging neck- and back-lines.

Silverman said her coaches and family never pressured her about her weight. She did a good enough job of that herself.

"I was a little girl and we have these rescue fantasies," said Silverstein, who made a point of taking courses in gender and sexuality issues at Cornell. "Things are imprinted on us. A lot of me being sick was I wanted someone to say 'Look at what's happening. She's more important than the sport.' "

She currently works with a nutritionist in Michigan to make sure she is doing what she needs to do to stay healthy. Part of her new confidence comes from maturity and part from a feeling that she has a grip on the underlying causes of the illness.

"I'm sure I'll always think two seconds too many about what I put in my mouth," she said. "I think any type of eating disorder is an affliction of females in our society and it's sick. I would love to start a revolution and change the media, but I'm not brave enough to do that.

"I still look at the fashion magazines and see this ideal that's being projected and as much as I want to turn my head to it, it's hard. I'm not there yet. Maybe someday I will be."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.