Home Figure Skating News Cleo Park: From Disney helmets to U.S. Junior bronze

Cleo Park: From Disney helmets to U.S. Junior bronze

Gaining confidence and giving back

by Paula Slater
Melanie Heaney/U.S. Figure Skating

Cleo Park performs her short program at the 2024 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Columbus, Ohio.

Cleo Park performs her short program at the 2024 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Columbus, Ohio.

Cleo Park

This past fall, USA’s Cleo Park made her international debut as a junior in two back-to-back international events: 2023 Kings Cup International and 2023 Tayside Trophy. She placed third and first, respectively. A month later, she took third at sectionals and qualified for the 2024 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. There, she placed first after a strong short program, third in the free skate, and third overall to win the bronze in the junior division.

“I normally do not skate my best in the short program,” admitted Park. “Then I got over-excited going into the free skate. I was shocked and my mental focus was unstable. Even though I had strong elements in my jumps, I underrotated jumps that I could normally do with my eyes closed.”

At the beginning of the season, Park had a triple flip-triple toe, but that changed up at nationals to a triple Salchow-triple toe as her feet grew.

“I had to get bigger boots,” she explained. “With the new boots, I kept making mistakes on my triple flip-triple toe and I was doubting the jump in practices and competitions. Coach Chris (Pottenger) recommended doing the triple Salchow-triple toe since I have done this jump during my intermediate season. I also wanted to do a clean quality short program and have good grades of execution.

Despite not skating her best in the free skate, Park reflected on a positive point: landing her first clean triple-Salchow-triple toe combination.

“But my program component scores were very low,” she observed. “During the weeks before nationals, I worked very hard on my artistry, facial expressions, and body movements.”

2023-24 Programs: Developing arm movements

This season, Park skated to “Dans La Nuit” by Sarah Brightman for the short program. The music was selected by Pottenger.

“I never knew who Sarah Brightman was until Coach Chris went to her concert,” she said. “He knew this was the right music for me. I wanted to follow Isabeau Levito’s style of her softness and skating skills.”

Park counted herself lucky that Misha Ge’s team was training at the East West Ice Palace at the time. While most of the program was developed by Pottenger, Ge did the choreography and refined all the details.

“I love my step sequence in this program,” she said, “especially the right forward long slide.”

“On the other hand, the most challenging was building and developing arm and facial movements,” she added. “Normally, I am very stiff and do not have natural elegance, so it did take a while before I finally did get more natural arms and smoothness.”

“Before nationals, I would spend 30 minutes on each program practicing arm movements,” she explained. “For instance, I would focus on the arm and body movement being soft for the short program. For the free skate, I would use strong emotions and strong arms. I did this every day.”

Ge also choreographed her free skate to “This Land” from The Lion King soundtrack.

“My free skate was a huge difference from my short,” Park pointed out. “At first I was hesitant as Mao Shimada skated her free skate to The Lion King, too. But Misha gave me an edited piece and it was similar to my Cruella piece. The Lion King was my favorite Disney movie when I was younger, and I portray Nala. Nala is the ‘queen of her pride’ and I wanted to skate like the ‘queen.'”

“As always, Coach Chris changed the steps and every little detail,” she continued. “My favorite part in the program was the second half when the music speeds up. It was a ‘fight’ and I loved how intense the music went. The most challenging was my stamina at the end and the steps. I had to quicken my steps and push more.”

Starting out: Disney helmets and disco balls

Park was five years old when she embarked on her first ice skating journey clad in a Disney Princess helmet. It was a scorching day in Buena Park, California, and her mother, Mira, whisked her away on a brief 10-minute car ride to the East West Ice Palace in Artesia.

“I remember falling backwards and bonking my head on the ice,” said Park, who is now 14.

It became a regular outing and Park enjoying skating during the public session when the disco ball and strobe lights were flashing.

“I mostly just skated around the ice doing nothing and kept falling,” she recalled. “But one day, there was a cool guy doing jumps, spins, and other neat things. It was so beautiful! I found out later that he was Nathan Chen. This gave me a lightbulb of ideas and led me to start learning skating skills in my first ever group called ‘Skating School.’ I learned all the basics quickly, and in a short amount of time, I was already starting to jump and spin by myself!”

Discovering inspiration and a ‘whole new world’

A few short years later, Park began to notice and look up to Isabeau Levito.

“When I was eight years old, she won the juvenile division gold medal at the 2018 U.S. Championships,” said Park. “It was my first time watching her. I was surprised that a young girl could do clean double Axels and become a juvenile champion! After watching Isabeau, I started getting serious about my training and my skating.”

She also admires Mao Shimada for her power jumps.

Park clearly remembers one of her first competitions—the 2014 California Championships, where she competed in Basic 4.

“I skated to ‘A Whole New World’ and wore a sparkly yellow dress. I did a waltz jump and a scratch spin and ended ten seconds early to the music,” she recalled, laughing.

After this competition, Park, who worked with Anna Baram, began training under Pottenger and Anthony Evans.

Cleo Park

Cleo Park sports a bronze medal at the annual 2014 California Championships in Artesia, California. (Photo courtesy Mira Park).

Gaining confidence as a novice

Fast-forward to the fall of 2022, Park received a total score of 163.02 points at the 43rd annual Pasadena Open—a qualifying series for the 2023 U.S. National championships.

“It was a hard-to-get score, especially in the novice level,” said Park. “It helped my confidence a lot because did a clean short and clean free skate. I was setting a high bar for my score. It made me realize I can do the abilities that others can.”

“Then, U.S. Figure Skating started supporting me in a workshop called ‘Four Continents Advanced Novice Workshop,'” she added. “They gave me free flights and a free hotel. This was my first time in the U.S. Olympic Training site in Colorado Springs.”

Park added that she was motivated by the environment at the facility and seeing a lot of team USA skaters such as Amber Glenn training so efficiently there.

Yet, things took a turnaround weeks before the 2023 Pacific Coast Sectional Singles Final. As with all athletes, Park’s body was growing and changing, and this impacted her skating. She placed third at the event and didn’t qualify for nationals.

“I was very upset with my results at sectionals, but I got stronger mentally and physically,” she said. “In the novice level, I was the ‘hare’ in the short moral story, The Tortoise and the Hare—a story my mom told me. During the junior level, I learned from my past experiences and worked hard like the tortoise. I worked on my mental and physical being. Without my mom’s story, I would have not become the skater that I am now.”

Six months later, Park received her first international assignment (advanced novice) at 2023 Mexico Cup where she placed first. It was there that she received her first Team USA jacket.

“This also boosted my confidence,” said Park, who went to the event with training mate Annika Chao. “It was really fun!”

Family and support

While her parents are both from South Korea, Park is not yet able to speak the language fluently. She can read and comprehend a little, but it’s her sister, Nicole, who can read, write and speak Korean fluently.

“They are very hard workers!” said Park of her parents. “My dad and mom are like polar opposites: my dad is very permissive and lets me get whatever I want, even if it is behind my mom’s back. My older sister and I eat out every weekend with only my dad, so we always end up choosing the unhealthiest restaurants that are a no-no.”

“However, my mom is authoritarian as she fixes my mistakes right away and directs me in the right direction,” she added. “She is constantly videotaping me and going up and down the stairs of the bleachers to show me the corrections I need to do. When I try slacking off a bit, she bites back and tells me to get back to work.”

“My dad still does not know the difference between our jumps and still calls my triple toe loop a ‘double Axel,'” Park laughed.

Her sister Nicole, 16, is also a figure skater.

“She is very supportive of me, and I always followed in her footsteps when I was younger,” said Park. “I watched and learned what she was doing on the ice and in return, I would do the same thing. Nicole skates strong and powerful and she has a great knack for dancing. Every time I would stress about a jump, Nicole would always encourage me since she knows what it feels like to have that kind of stress on her shoulders, too. She is the only person I can tell my skating problems to since she would be the one who understands me the most.”

Life outside of skating

Park considers herself lucky that her house is located between Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland in Anaheim.

“When I was younger, I would go to one of those two amusement parks once a week,” she said. “I now have a Knott’s Season Pass, and on weekends, I go to the amusement park with my older sister.

The skater also enjoys drawing and goes to the “In Art Studio” every Friday.

“My drawing is not professional, but I do love creating fashion designs,” she said. “I am learning from the basics and step-by-step drawing.”

When COVID-19 hit, Park began attending the California Connections Academy Southern California, an online public school. She is currently in the eighth grade and her favorite subjects are Social Studies and Language Arts. She is also Vice President of the National Junior Honors Society.

“Social Studies is easy to me and fun because I can learn about American history before I was born,” said Park. “Language Arts is the same, but I can learn new grammar skills and reading comprehension skills.”

Creampuff and Mr. Jumper

Another prominent member of the Park family is “Creampuff”—a four-year-old of Maltese-Coton de Tulear mix.

“My mom promised us our first dog if Nicole went to her first national development camp as a juvenile skater,” Park shared. “She won the sectional title, and we were blessed with him. Nicole named him ‘Creampuff’ after she read a book with a dog with the same name. Since we are both obsessed with food, we decided that ‘Creampuff’ was the cutest name!”

Park also has a red-and-blue mix male betta fish she calls “Mr. Jumper.”

“I got him right after nationals because my mom promised she would get me a betta fish if I got into the top three,” said the teenager. “I did it and I got Mr. Jumper at PetSmart. I named him ‘Mr. Jumper’ because as soon as I got him, he was jumping all over his container!”

Dreams and aspirations for 2024-25

Park is now working on the triple Lutz-triple toe and plans to include it in her new 2024-25 free skate to music from Disney’s Jungle Cruise.

“I did choose my music for my new free skate,” she confirmed. “I will be portraying Lily Houghton played by Emily Blunt in the movie. My choreographer is Jamie Isley. Jamie made my novice short program for the 2022-2023 season, and she lives locally near the rink.”

The teen will be keeping her short program to “Dans La Nuit” for next season, however, the jumps, choreography and spins will be reworked.

Later this summer, Park plans to compete at the 2024 Skate Milwaukee in July, which will host the U.S. Junior Team Cup, in hopes for a JGP assignment.

“Competing in the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) for 2024-25 is my dream,” she revealed. “USA only has a few spots, so I want to get in the top three at Junior Cup and hope to get at least one JGP. I did go to two junior Challenger Series last season, but the Junior Grand Prix circuit is a goal I am aiming for.”

“I am also going to improve on artistry,” Park added of her goals. “I have started ballet once a week and I dance and do lots of body movements off the ice with the Pottenger team.”

Giving back

Aside from training and studying, the young teen has a full load of responsibilities. She is the vice president of the Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club junior board at her training rink—Anaheim ICE. One of her primary duties is helping to schedule social events for fundraising, such as a Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Halloween parties.

Park, along with her sister Nicole, founded a nonprofit organization Gogo Free Figure Skating Dresses. The name “Gogo” comes from a playful phrase from the club when a member or friend says, “Let’s go!”

“Getting a custom-fit dress is very expensive nowadays,” she pointed out. “I am helping the young figure skaters who will later grow into stronger skaters. So, basically, we had lots our old dresses from when we were younger just hanging in the closet. My mom, Nicole and I decided to give them to skaters who needed them, to the little skaters that were inspired by us.”

The Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club junior board now works with the organization, which also accepts donations for the dresses, to help expand the figure skating community.

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