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Steenberg waiting in the wings

Virginia skater looking for place among sports elite

Tommy Steenberg finished ninth at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Tommy Steenberg finished ninth at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Paul Harvath )

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By John Markon, special to icenetwork.com
(07/09/2008) - "Maturity" is a concept that's fully realized at the Fairfax Virgina Ice Arena, an exceptionally well-preserved, time-capsule slice of the 1960s. Turn a corner and you might see Ozzie and Harriet or Wally and Beaver Cleaver lined up with money in hand at the rental counter.

"It's not modern or luxurious," said coach Audrey Weisiger, "But I developed an Olympian in this building and it's still a place where a lot of good things happen."

Weisiger's Olympian was Michael Weiss, actually a two-time Olympian (Nagano and Salt Lake City) and three-time U.S. men's singles champion. Weiss' potential successor is Tommy Steenberg, a talented 19-year-old who may be maturing into a much larger role among American men.

Steenberg's currently one of at least half a dozen younger skaters scrambling to occupy the rungs on the singles ladder just below veterans Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, who've combined to win the last five national championships.

While it's still presumed that Lysacek (age 23) and Weir (24) will fill two of the three spots likely to be allotted American men in the 2010 Winter Olympics, both of them have been on top for quite some time and have the long-term injuries and general wear and tear to prove it.

Less than two years from the lighting of the flame in Vancouver, nothing's guaranteed.

"That's how I see it, wide open with a lot of opportunity," said Steenberg after a practice last week. "There's no reason not to aim high."

Toward that end, Steenberg made a big decision last summer, electing to defer his college acceptance at nearby George Mason University in order to train and skate full time.

"It really was a tough choice," Steenberg said. "I've always liked school, I'd done well in school and I knew there would be a lot of things I'd like about going to college.

"Once I made the decision, I might have put too much pressure on my skating. All of a sudden, skating was just about all that I did. Everything about it seemed bigger... more important than it used to be. I'm not sure I was ready for that."

Steenberg's 2007-08 season began on a flat note when he couldn't do better than sixth in a Junior Grand Prix event in Lake Placid, thus locking himself out of the rest of the series.

"It was a big setback because Tommy could have used more international competition," Weisiger said. "I loved what he did after that... the way he came back and had a very satisfying season."

Steenberg won his regional and sectional championships and finished ninth among senior men at U.S. championships after having been 13th and 14th in 2006 and 2007. He made his first junior worlds team and was ranked sixth after the short program at worlds, ultimately going home from Bulgaria with another ninth place.

"For a while, my points and my placements kept going up with every competition and that was just what I needed," Steenberg said. "If I'd lost any confidence, I think I got it all back. I feel really ready for this season."

Ready enough to include eight triple jumps in his long program for 2008-09, the first year all of Steenberg's competition will be on the senior level.

Weisiger and Chris Conte, Steenberg's coaches in Fairfax, have also encouraged him to consult with other top-echelon coaches with an eye toward allowing him to develop a distinctive, personal style. In the last year or two, Steenberg's gathered opinions and advice from (among others) Frank Carroll, Priscilla Hill, Doug Leigh and Mark Mitchell.

"All that's left," Steenberg said, "is to put it all together."

The biggest question for Steenberg might not be technical. With friends and strangers, he comes across as happy and approachable. He's a magnet for the younger skaters at the Ice Arena, who seem to regard him as a big kid who's a lot like them, except that he can whip off a triple axel when he wants to.

Does this smiling "nice guy" have the mental toughness to overcome a field of cold-eyed competitors to become a champion?

"That's what we're working on," Weisiger said. "I believe he does have it and I see more and more of it coming out in him all the time. It's just a matter of maturity."

And it's around him everywhere he looks.