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Saturday, March 24
Updated: August 29, 1:16 PM ET
Change brings Nikodinov happiness and success

Associated Press

VANCOUVER, Canada --For years, people gushed about Angela Nikodinov's talent and potential, only to have her falter when it counted most.

She heard the whispers, saw people shaking their heads at her maddening inconsistency. She couldn't always understand it, either, because it wasn't as if she wasn't trying.

"People have always told me, 'You can do it, you can do it,"' she said. "But I have to believe I can do it before I can go out and do it."

Finally, she does. And her belief carried her to a solid fifth-place showing in the World Figure Skating Championships.

"This year, I have new faith in myself," she said. "I feel better about myself, happier in my own skin."

Nikodinov struggled in the final moments of Saturday night's free skate. Still, she had a terrific week.

"I am disappointed because I am skating really well," she said of not winning a medal after entering the free skate in third place. "But I think I put out so many great practices, my qualifying round was better than this and my short program was the best I've done. It's been the best competition, I think, of my whole skating career."

It sounds so simple now, but her amazing transformation began only because she wanted to be happy. Desperately homesick for her family in Southern California, she decided last fall to leave Michigan, where she'd been training with Richard Callaghan.

She didn't have a coach lined up back home, so she began working with Yelena Tcherkasskaya, a former ballerina who is now a choreographer.

The two had worked together before, and Nikodinov immediately felt a comfort level with Tcherkasskaya she'd never had before. Nikodinov already had the technical skills she needed, but Tcherkasskaya helped her find the confidence she so desperately lacked.

The two often seem more like mother and daughter than coach and pupil, with Tcherkasskaya beaming whenever she talks about Nikodinov. She calls her a "good girl," and speaks of her pride in Nikodinov regardless of the results.

"She's just what I needed this year to have faith in myself," Nikodinov said.

Tcherkasskaya changed Nikodinov's diet, and the skater shed about 15 pounds. They spent hours on Nikodinov's presentation, and Tcherkasskaya's ballet influence is abundantly clear. Unlike years past, when Nikodinov looked stone-faced on the ice, she's wonderfully expressive this year.

"I'm thinking more about skating," she said, "not so much about where I place."

People began seeing the difference at the U.S. nationals in January, where Nikodinov was third. Though she'd been the bronze medalist in 1999, the finish was still a surprise. She'd slipped to a weak fourth place in 2000, and had become an afterthought to Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes and mighty mites like Naomi Nari Nam and Sasha Cohen.

Despite her third-place finish this year, she got barely a mention in the leadup to worlds. After being a non-factor her previous two trips to worlds - she was ninth and 12th - all of the talk centered on Irina Slutskaya, Kwan and Hughes.

Even Nikodinov herself wouldn't have put her name in with the contenders.

"This year, with all the changes I made, I don't quite know where I fit in with everyone," she admitted. "I just do what I can do."

In third place after qualifying, she was the very last skater to go in Friday's short program. Having to wait that long and hear what everyone else did is just the kind of nerve-racking ordeal that would have caused Nikodinov to crumble in the past. And a glitch in her music at the start of her program didn't help.

But instead of stumbling, she was almost magical. Her graceful program to "Serenity" brought the audience to its feet and put Nikodinov ahead of Hughes and former world champion Maria Butyrskaya.

But Hughes and Butyrskaya passed her in the free skate.

"I feel like a totally different person," Nikodinov said. "My personality, my attitude going into competition, I can't compare my skating this year to my skating last year. I feel like I have a fresh start."

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