Chiera makes successful leap to senior ranksFlorida skater took Eastern Sectional title over more seasoned competitors
A little more than a year ago, Franchesca Chiera was competing at the novice level and didn't advance past regionals.
This past weekend, she not only qualified for the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston but did so at the senior level. And she didn't just earn a spot at nationals; she won the Eastern Sectional senior title.
She finished first in both the short program and the free skate, earning a total score of 172.78 -- 20.94 points more than the second-place finisher. In fact, all three of the other qualifiers Chiera beat -- Kiri Baga, Joelle Forte and Yasmin Siraj -- have been to nationals as seniors and have competed internationally.
"I just felt really confident, and I really wanted to go out and do what I knew I could do," said Chiera, who trains in Coral Springs, Fla., at the same practice rink as the NHL's Florida Panthers. "I was just really well prepared."
"We are very proud of her," added one of her coaches, Ilona Melnichenko. "It wasn't a surprise for me to see her skate like she did (at Easterns) because she skates that way for us in practice. But it was her first time skating in sectionals."
To accelerate her progress, Chiera had to get busy. After her disappointing performance at regionals last season, she and her coaches sat down and came to a decision: Since she already had the triple jumps, why not move up a level? She took her junior test shortly thereafter, and in January took her senior test.
"I think maybe we gave her two days off after those regionals," said Melnichenko, who handles Chiera's choreography and spins. "We told her, 'One bad performance doesn't have to stop you from achieving your goals.'"
Typically, coaches like to take conservative approaches with their skaters and have them get competition experience at each level, but Chiera's didn't want to wait. In addition to Melnichenko, Chiera's coaching team includes Artem Torgashev, who focuses on Chiera's jumps, and Curtis Chornopyski, who works with the jumping harness.
"We just really wanted to push her and challenge her," Melnichenko said.
Moving up from novice to senior is a big jump, but Chiera seemed ready for the challenge. At the Eastern Sectional Championships, performing to music from the movie The Matrix, Chiera displayed plenty of drama to go along with her strong technical skating. Wearing a mature black costume, she opened her program with a triple Lutz-double toe and a triple flip.
Her free skate, to "Rhapsody in Blue," opens with a triple Lutz-double toe, triple flip-double toe and a second triple Lutz. Chiera and her coaches said she is in a wait-and-see mode as to whether she will turn any of those triple-double combinations into triple-triples at the U.S. championships.
Chiera is a Florida native and knows it is not typical to come from the Sunshine State and become passionate about a winter sport such as figure skating. But since first stepping on the ice when she was just 2 ½, she has found it hard to leave.
"I have two older brothers, and both of them played hockey," Chiera said. "So my mom just brought me to the rink and put me on figure skaters. I just loved it. I knew right away that this was the sport for me. I know a lot of kids when they are younger, they try a lot of sports before they find one they really love. For me, it was always figure skating."
Chiera also was fortunate to have found such an accomplished coaching crew right in her backyard. Melnichenko is a former ice dancer from the Ukraine who won the world junior title as a member of the Soviet Union's team. Torgashev, who is Melnichenko's husband, is a former world junior silver medalist in pairs. And Chornopyski competed at Canadian nationals and was a longtime show skater. Chiera has been working with this coaching team since she was about 10.
The three of them had a very successful trip to Ashburn, Va., site of Easterns. In addition to Chiera, Melnichenko and Torgashev's son, Andrew, placed second in novice men's and Lindsay Rosenberg finished fourth in intermediate.
But Chiera's victory was the biggest.
From a young age, the coaches could see something special in Chiera's skating.
"She was very fast," Melnichenko said. "She always worked hard. Her work ethic is very strong, and she has a very supportive family."
Chiera, who turned 16 on Oct. 8, has a lot to look forward to in the next couple of months. In addition to earning a spot at nationals, she also has her driver's permit and expects to get her license in January.
She will have a tough road ahead of her in Boston, making her senior-level national debut against an experienced field of ladies, but it is clear that for the moment, Franchesca Chiera is in the driver's seat.