The U.S. Ladies of 2000: Where are they now?

The 2000 U.S. National Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, might be remembered as one of the most highly anticipated skating competitions in recent memory.

Michelle Kwan won her fourth of her nine U.S. titles in these championships, hometown boy Timothy Goebel landed three quadruple jumps in his freeskate to snatch the silver medal, and a young dance team with the names Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto debuted on the junior level, winning the title in their first season together.

But the big story was the baby ballerinas, as Dick Button so playfully called the bumper crop of pre-pubescent skaters who stormed onto the national scene on the ABC broadcast.  Five of the junior ladies from the 1999 Championships, including the four medalists, qualified for the senior ladies competition, and each were looking to make a name for herself against the reigning queen of U.S. Figure Skating.

On the tenth anniversary of the Cleveland 2000 Championships, Goldenskate.com checked in on the ladies to see what they are up to these days.

Michelle Kwan, gold medalist

Any skate fan knows about Kwan’s domination of the sport during her career.  In her twelve appearances on the senior level at the U.S. Championships, Kwan won nine times and harvested silver thrice.  She was named to three Olympic teams, competed in and won medals in two, and is perhaps inspiration for many of the ladies in the 2010 U.S. National Championships are skating today.

Kwan won her fourth title in Cleveland, and it was the year of her A Day in the Life short program.  Several skaters used her freeskate music, The Red Violin, this week in Spokane, perhaps in tribute to their favorite skater.

Kwan graduated from the University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree in international studies, and is now attending Tufts University in order to earn a master’s degree in international relations.  The Olympic silver medalist was named as a public diplomacy ambassador during the Bush administration, and it is a role that she continues today.

Sasha Cohen, silver Medalist

Cohen was, in 2000, a large part of the focus by the media and the fans that were searching for the next big rival for Kwan.  At 15 years old, Cohen was confident, flexible, and fiery, but not age eligible for the World Championships.  The young upstart finished in first place in the short program, but made an error on her final jump of her freeskate to finish second overall.  A disappointing trip to the World Junior Championships nixed any hope of the silver medalist from competing in Nice against the world’s best.

One would have to be a recluse to not know of Cohen’s storied comeback at this week’s U.S. Championships in Spokane.  In pursuit of a third Olympic Team, Cohen is in second place after the short program, and has said that her comeback is more about the journey than the result.  The Olympic silver medalist skates later this evening to see if she can recapture her former glory, and inspire a whole new generation of baby ballerinas.

Sarah Hughes, bronze medalist

At just fourteen years old, Hughes was already a veteran in this bunch of ladies.  After winning a medal at the World Junior Championships the year before, Hughes was eligible for and earned a berth to the World Championships as a thirteen year old.  In Cleveland, Hughes finished in second place after the short program, but slipped to third place after the freeskate. Because she was grandfathered past the age restrictions, Hughes was named to the World team for the second straight year.

The 2002 Olympic Gold Medalist spent the years after her Olympic triumph skating in the Smuckers Stars on Ice show and attending classes at Yale University.  Hughes earned a bachelors degree in American studies in 2009, and is in Spokane cheering for her younger sister Emily as she skates in the senior ladies event.

Angela Nikodinov, pewter medalist

Nikodinov competed in her fifth U.S. Championships on the senior level in Cleveland, and finished a disappointing fourth place after standing on the podium a year before.  The 19 year old was one of the elder statesmen in the competition, and was a World Team member the year before.  Because Cohen was not eligible for the World Championships, Nikodinov was selected to compete in Nice, and finished in ninth place.  Nikodinov also won the Four Continents Championships in Osaka that season.

Many remember Nikodinov for her exquisite presence on the ice, but also for her the incredible amount of misfortune that she suffered in her skating career.  After losing her coach and mentor Elena Tcherkasskaya in the fall of 2001, Nikodinov was involved in a tragic car accident on her way to compete at the 2005 U.S. Championships in Portland, Oregon, that claimed the life of her mother.

Today, Nikodinov is a figure skating coach in southern California, and has coached skaters at the U.S., European, and World Championships as well as the 2006 Olympics.

Andrea Gardiner, 5th place

Eighteen year old Andrea Gardiner was a crowd favorite in Cleveland, earning standing ovations for each of her programs, and earning her highest finish at a U.S. Championships.  As a reward for her placement, Gardiner was named to the Four Continents Championships team and finished in eighth place.

Recent reports have indicated that Gardiner is no longer involved in skating, and was at one time working as a dental hygienist in Texas.

Stacey Pensgen, 6th place

Pensgen was just seventeen years old in Cleveland, and was competing for the third time on the senior level.  Pensgen was one of the surprises of the evening, finishing in sixth place overall, and was named to the Four Continents Championships team.  In Osaka, Pensgen won the silver medal behind Nikodinov with strong performances.

“I remember having so much fun,” Pensgen recently said of her experience in Cleveland. “Everything was so easy – my jumps, my programs. I just had a blast. My whole family was there, as well, so it was definitely my favorite Nationals.”

Pensgen remembers a special reward given to her immediately following her freeskate that she still laughs about today.

“I was chosen to be the random drug test that year, so after I skated my heart out I had to drink ton, of liquids until I could – um, produce, for them, Pensgen admitted with a good sense of humor.  “Then I felt sick the rest of the night for drinking so much!”

Pensgen is now on the ice every day coaching in the Rochester, NY, area and can also be seen on 13WHAM-TV in Rochester as an on-air meteorologist and reporter.  Pensgen has a degree in meteorology, and is happy to be living with her sister in a townhouse that the two recently purchased.

Jennifer Kirk, 7th place

Kirk was one of the true baby ballerinas competing in Cleveland.  The 1999 junior bronze medalist was just fifteen years old, and had the most aggressive jump content in the competition.  After falling in the short program and finishing in a disappointing eleventh place, Kirk came back fighting in the freeskate and landed seven triple jumps including a triple-triple combination to move up to seventh place overall.

“What stands out the most was how much media attention Sasha got after the short program,” Kirk remembered. “Coming to Cleveland, most of us baby ballerinas were somewhat unknown, and after the short program I remember it all changed for Sasha. She was sitting in the hallway counting the stuffed animals she had received, and the ESPN cameras were all over her. I remember thinking about how quickly things can change after a good performance, and seeing all the cameras really made me feel like this was the big time.”

Kirk also remembered her mistake in the short program, an error that would change her skating for the rest of her career.

“All week my practices had been really rough, so I had no idea how I was going to respond to the pressure of the long program,” said the eventual World Junior Champion.  “I was thrilled to land my triple-triple in the long, and I remember thinking that although I was happy with how I skated, I never wanted to fall again in my short program at nationals and put myself in the underdog position heading into the long. Thankfully, I never did!”

Kirk reports that after working over the summer as a writer for True/Slant and the Los Angeles Times that she is now focusing all of her energy on school.  She will continue to work with Universal Sports on a few upcoming commentating gigs, but school will be her main priority.  Kirk has been following the US Championships from her home in southern California, and admits that she likes being a spectator more than a competitor at this point in her life.

Naomi Nari Nam, 8th place

After stealing the show at the 1999 Championships in Salt Lake City, fourteen year old Nam came to Cleveland as one of the most talked about skaters.  An injury that season plagued Nam, and carried over to the competition causing Nam to finish in a disappointing eighth place overall.  Nam tried to come back the following season to compete at the championships in Boston, but injuries forced her to withdraw.  The 2000 Nationals was the last appearance for Nam on the senior level as a singles skater.

After the 2001 season, Nam took some time away from skating to heal from her injuries and attend high school to experience what it was like to be a ‘normal teen’.  Nam returned to competition in the 2005-06 season as a pairs skater with Themisticles Leftheris, and finished as high as third at the US Championships.  Another injury ended Nam’s skating career in 2008, but she is still involved with skating as a coach in Peter Oppegard’s camp. This week in Spokane, Nam was part of the coaching team for Brynn Carman and AJ Reiss who won placed fifth in junior pairs.

Deanna Stellato, 9th place

Stellato was the US Novice Ladies Champion in 1999, and made the bold move up to the senior level on her way to Cleveland.  In bypassing the junior level, sixteen year-old Stellato instantly became part of the baby ballerina movement.  In the competition, Stellato finished in eighth place in both portions of the event, and ended up in ninth place overall in her only appearance on the senior level of the US Championships.

As a reward for her top ten finish, Stellato was named to the World Junior Championships team, and finished with a silver medal behind Kirk in Obertsdorf, Germany.  After finishing in fifth place at Skate Canada later that fall, Stellato suffered a career ending injury, and has been the subject of many ‘Whatever happened to’ threads on skating message boards for years.

Stellato remembers her week in Cleveland fondly, and recently recalled her favorite moment from the competition.

‘What I remember most about skating in Cleveland was the surreal feeling I got when I saw the banner US Figure Skating Championships around the rink, and when I heard the theme music from ABC that was so familiar to me from television,” Stellato described.  “In those couple moments I felt so happy to be at Nationals as a senior lady that I had to fight back tears of happiness and try to focus on what I was there for.”

Stellato now calls Chicago home, and works in the beauty industry in the city.

“Two years after I graduated high school I received my Medical Esthetics License and became a Certified Permanent Cosmetic Professional,” Stellato said from her home. “Currently, I’m working full time running a medical spa with two physicians and attending college part time. Unfortunately, between my job and all of my schooling I have been unable to participate in any skating functions, however, I have been actively trying to change that since May of 2009. Hopefully, I will begin doing some coaching seminars and getting involved with US Figure Skating in their mentoring programs.”

Sara Wheat, 10th place

Wheat was the reigning US Junior Champion heading into Cleveland, and had a lot of media pressure as the top up and comer.  The fifteen year old struggled in the short program, and eventually finished in tenth place in her first appearance on the senior level. Wheat made two more appearances at the US Championships, and finished as high as eighth in 2001, but she retired from competitive skating in the summer of 2004.

“The thing I remember most about skating in Cleveland is how hot I was in the arena,” Wheat said.  “I am always cold and always wore sweaters when practicing. I am not sure if it was the lights and amount of people in the rink, but I was unusually hot. I found that to be the case at all of the large arenas in which I would later compete.”

“I stopped skating in the summer of 2004,” Wheat explained. I had fractured my tailbone the year before and then fractured my tibia plateau (knee) in March of 2004. I tried to come back but I kept getting frustrated because it seemed I could not get the timing of my jumps back.”

Wheat received a B.A. in Elementary Education from Rowan University in Rowan, New Jersey, and now teaches kindergarten in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.  Wheat lives in nearby Swedesboro with her pet “Mamabear”, and will marry fiancée Zach in July of this year.

Andrea Aggeler, 11th place

Aggeler finished in 11th place in Cleveland after an 8th place finish the season before.  At press time, Aggeler had not responded to requests for an interview.

Brittney McConn, 12th place

McConn was one of the most powerful jumpers in the competition, was competing in her third US Championships after a pair of seventh place finishes in the previous two seasons.   McConn skated a decent short program in Cleveland, but struggled in the freeskate, and finished in twelfth place.

McConn has been married for eight and a half years to David Bottoms, and she and her husband live in Atlanta with their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Annabelle.  McConn is a member of the US Figure Skating Board of Directors and also coaches near her home.

McConn reports, “I have a BS in Exercise and Health Science, have a PSA Certified Moves in the Field and Freestyle Coach certifications, and I have a National appointment as a Technical Specialist. I am also the oversight official for the International Committee for US Figure Skating.”

Amber Corwin, 13th place

Corwin skated perhaps the worst short program of her life in Cleveland, but rebounded to finish in thirteenth place overall.  At twenty-one years old, Corwin was the Grande Dame of the competition, and was competing in her sixth consecutive championships.  Corwin continued to skate through the 2005 season, and earned her highest placement in 2004 with a fourth place finish.

Corwin remembers the competition fondly, and recalled some fun times while in Cleveland.

“My favorite memories are always the bonding that I have with my friends on the bus, at practice, performing, and of course at the competitor’s party where we would dance and sing all night,” Corwin said.  “I remember having some of the best practices that I’ve ever experienced and landing a triple triple-triple on one of practice ices.”

Corwin, who now lives on the beach in Redondo Beach, California, has a Bachelors degree in Fashion Merchandising from Long Beach State, and works in sports marketing.

“I work in Experiential Marketing at an Advertising Agency and our clients are in affluent sports, which allows me to produce events like tennis, golf, skiing and Epicurean events involving food and wine.  It’s great because I still get to travel all the time and experience the fast paced life that I love. I have performed in shows and TV specials over the past few years since retirement and teach skating on the weekends.  I am still on many athlete committees and conduct seminars nationwide as well.”

Elizabeth Kwon, 14th place

Kwon came into the competition after winning the pewter medal on the junior level a year before in Spokane.  Much buzz surrounded the twelve year old Kwon as she was rumored to have been practicing and landing the triple axel before the competition in Cleveland.  Kwon was unable to live up to the pressure of the senior level, and eventually left skating due to injuries.

“I had lower back problems and pinched nerves and shattered cartilage in my right ankle, so training was rough,” Kwon recently reported. “After I stopped skating, I moved back home to Virginia and went to high school full time. I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands, but it was nice to be a “normal” teenager!

Kwon graduated from the Miami University of Ohio in May 2009, and is currently in law school in Michigan.

“I didn’t skate at all when I was in high school, but I did skate on and off during my four years at Miami,” Kwon said.  “I still had ankle problems because the pinched nerves never healed properly, but even with that, I couldn’t resist not going to the rink! Skating was my stress relief from all the schoolwork and I competed collegiate my sophomore year. Miami has a fantastic figure skating and hockey program, so I definitely took advantage of it. Right now with law school, I don’t find much free time to be able to skate.”

Heidi Pakkala, 15th place

Pakkala came into Cleveland as a complete unknown, but was quickly recognized for her beautiful air position on her jumps.  Cleveland was Pakkala’s first time competing in senior ladies at the National Championships, and she remembers the competition fondly.

“For me skating in Cleveland was very surreal,” Pakkala said in a recent interview. “Competing in Championship Ladies was something I worked for my entire career, and I just remember how special it was to share the ice with three Olympians (Kwan, Cohen, and Hughes). I still feel very proud to have been on the same stage with some of the biggest names the sport has ever known. I will never forget that magical week in Cleveland.”

Pakkala, who is now married to Brad Reagan, lives in Breckenridge, Colorado, and is not active in figure skating.  She attended the University of Minnesota where she met her husband, and said that she will be cheering for her friend, Alex Johnson, a competitor in the senior men’s division, from her home.

Stephanie Roth, 16th place

Roth was one of the four ladies who made the jump from the junior level to compete at the senior level in Cleveland.  At seventeen and five feet eight inches tall, Roth was not considered to be a baby ballerina, and perhaps provided a stark contrast to their lyrical styles.  Roth was known as one of the biggest jumpers in the competition, covering more ice than most men in her triple jumps.

“Cleveland was my first Nationals at the Championship level and I had been placed in Michelle Kwan’s warm up group,” Roth remembered.  “That was the most inspiring thing for me to see how much poise and grace she had and how I was just in awe of her. I just remember having a lot of fun and was very proud of the way I skated there I never was the baby ballerina or the graceful skater, I skated with a lot of power and that wasn’t always rewarded. I had 2 program that were very much tailor made for me and I was more fulfilled with the fact that I made it doing it my way.”

Roth is now a show skater, preparing to skate on her forth tour as part of the Willy Bietek family of skaters on Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships.

“The shows are a great way for me to continue skating.  I am still doing some triples and I get to perform in front of and wow an audience several times every week. Even at my age, I’m 27 now, I’m learning new styles of skating and opening myself up to types of music I never would have skated to. I plan on continuing this for as long as I can.”

Because she will be at sea, Roth has no plans to watch the US Figure Skating Championships on TV, but will be rooting for one of her friends from the Caribbean.

“I can say that all my wishes are for my good friend Johnny (Weir) who I trained with all those years ago when we were both in Delaware. I’ll be following the results as much as I can online.”

Katie Lee, 17th place

Lee, like many of the other girls in the competition, was making her senior national debut in Cleveland.  Lee also made the 2001 National Championships, but she faded away from the competitive side of skating soon after.

“I remember feeling like an ogre as this was the year of the baby ballerinas and I was never a petite flower,” Lee said.  “Honestly, I think the thing I remember most about Cleveland was being able to share the experience with two of my close training partners.  I was really intimidated to be at Nationals for the first time, and I was glad they were there for me.”

Lee admits to feeling unprepared for the experience in Cleveland, and says that the following season was a better experience for her overall.

“As this was my first Nationals, I remember it being overwhelming. Truthfully, I enjoyed my second trip to Nationals much more, since I knew what to expect and could mentally prepare for it. On a more positive note, it is always exhilarating to be a part of a National Championships. There is so much energy in the building, whether it is for a practice or the big event, and it is very cool to be a part of that.”

After her competitive career was through, Lee attended Bradley University and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.  She teaches private lessons and learn-to-skate classes in her free time, and is employed by National Geographic.

“I will be glued to my TV, especially for the Senior Men’s event,” Lee said of the US Championships in Spokane.  “Jeremy Abbott and Wesley Campbell are two of my dearest friends – we go way back from competing at Midwesterns and the occasional summer in Colorado Springs. I know or have met most of the Senior Men’s field, as the men tend to stick around the sport longer. The only lady that I know these days is Alissa Czisny, as we competed against each other when we were juniors, so I don’t feel as much of a connection to the ladies this year. I’ll still watch them, of course, but I’m more excited to see the men.”

Susan Ng, 18th place

Ng made two appearances at the US Championships, and Cleveland was her last hurrah.  Ng turned sixteen in Cleveland, and now has a degree from the University of California Irvine.  Ng plans to graduate from the University of Southern California this year with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

Cohen Duncan, 19th place

Duncan finished in 19th place in Cleveland. At press time, Duncan had not responded to requests for an interview.

Kimberly Kilby, 20th place

Kilby had the distinction of finishing in last place in the competition, but has no regrets about her experience in Cleveland.

“Everything is kind of a blur! It was so long ago,” Kilby explained.  “It was my first Senior Nationals, so that was exciting. I remember being in the first skating group for the long program and Cohen Duncan and I were amazed at how many people were already at the arena. We looked at each other and said Who shows up for you first group?  It was very so exciting to skate for thousands and thousands of people.”

Kilby has two interesting stories from Cleveland that she was excited to share.

“The first is that Michelle skated right after me in the short program. I didn’t skate well at all so it wasn’t a tough act to follow,” Kilby joked.  “But I remember getting off the ice and her getting on for her program and thinking I am part of this group. It really gave me a sense of accomplishment. The second was after the long program. Sasha Cohen had fallen on or doubled her triple toe. I had known and competed against her for a while and because she was younger than me, I think she looked up to me as an elder in kind of a way. After she got off the ice she basically ran over to me, flung her arms around me and was like I messed up the toe loop. I thought it was cute that despite the fact that she was first after the short, and I was dead last, she still came to me for a little moral support!

Kilby stopped skating in 2002 to pursue higher education.  After attending high school full time, Kilby briefly studied at the University of California Berkeley before transferring to San Francisco State University where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in TV Broadcasting.

Kilby is now married, and worked in advertising for a few years, but has returned to skating after being laid off in 2009.

“I contacted some people I had known in skating and spent the summer doing a local ice show! I would like to continue to be involved by teaching lessons on the weekends. I have a love for the sport and feel that I will never truly be away from it!”

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