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Bobek returns to the ice, with help from friends

Turns to Callaghan once again; Starbuck, Eldredge lend support

Nicole Bobek with JoJo Starbuck backstage at "Skate for Love."
Nicole Bobek with JoJo Starbuck backstage at "Skate for Love." (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(04/18/2011) - When Nicole Bobek performed to k.d. lang's version of "Hallelujah," waves of support reverberated around the William G. Mennen Sports Arena.

And after the 33-year-old, attired in a dress last worn on her final Champions on Ice tour, delivered an elegant program culminating with in her trademark spiral, JoJo Starbuck said it best: "She's off to a good start."

Starbuck, a three-time U.S. pair champion, and 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel co-hosted "Skate for Love," a benefit for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, in Morristown, N.J. on Apr. 16th.

Skating luminaries including Kimmie Meissner, Emily Hughes and Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov shared their talents, but many people's thoughts were with Bobek, returning to the ice after a six-year absence.

"She is a new person," Starbuck said. "She's wiser now. And more passionate and appreciative and grateful for everything she has."

Starbuck has been lending Bobek, the 1995 U.S. champion, a helping hand and shoulder for much of her life. The two reconnected after the younger skater hit big-time trouble in July 2009, when she was charged with involvement in a northern New Jersey drug ring.

Bobek pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was sentenced to five years probation, 250 hours of community service and regular drug tests.

Now, living in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and working at her local ice rink, she is fighting to leave her troubles behind.

"It's been a long process," she said. "I've been back on the ice about a year now. It took me a long time to get my balance again after six years; you really lose the rotation and all of those things. It took three months to do a single Axel again."

To help her regain her footing, Bobek turned to Richard Callaghan, the coach who guided her to her U.S. title and the 1995 world bronze medal.

Coach and student reunited when yet another of Bobek's old friends, six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, invited Bobek to see him perform in a recent Stars on Ice show. Callaghan, who coached Eldredge throughout his career, was there.

"Richard was so excited to see me," Bobek said. "I had not had a lesson in nine years, ten years and I said to him, 'help me.' He said, 'come to my rink, come skate, I will get you ready for the show.'"

Since then, Bobek has been making the two-hour drive from her home to Callaghan's rink in Naples at least once a week. The coach is impressed with her commitment thus far.

"You can't teach what she has," he said. "I hope she can come back, do some TV shows, and display her real talents.

"Her doubles are pretty strong for what she's been through; well, no, they're pretty strong, period. I can't believe she's been off the ice for six years. We worked on double Lutz the other day and I'm going to want the double Axel back soon, then the triple toe, and after that we'll negotiate."

Bobek and Callaghan say they always remained on good terms despite their occasionally rocky past. After her 1995 success, an ankle injury aggravated by participation in a Nutcracker tour forced Bobek to withdraw during the 1996 U.S. Championships. She and Callaghan parted company, and she trained for several years with the late Carlo Fassi and his wife, Christa.

She rejoined Callaghan for the 1998-99 season, but injuries curtailed her training. She turned pro, becoming a staple of Champions on Ice for several years.

"It was a wonderful challenge. Each day I worked with her, I loved it," Callaghan said.

"She has such a unique talent. I wish she could have capitalized on it more. She's gone through a terrible time but she seems to be doing what she is supposed to be doing in terms of the court, I don't know the specifics, but I think she is ahead of schedule with that. There is a lot of hope for the future."

Bobek's rehabilitation extends far past the ice. As a youngster, she changed training sites frequently and never earned a diploma. She returned to school, took her GED exam four or five weeks ago and awaits the results.

At her rink, she helps out at the snack bar and drives the Zamboni.

"The manager who hired me is in charge of the ice maintenance, and you have to learn so many things," Bobek said. "You have to [practice with the Zamboni] for at least a month before you can do it on your own.

"I have a whole different way of looking at rinks now. I know all of the work that goes into them, it's a humbling experience. When I skated before there are little things you don't recognize or realize even what the crew does. Now I have such an appreciation."

Bobek is slowly venturing into teaching, working with students maybe twice a week, including a teenage hockey team.

"I was giving them edge classes and they did really well, they got third at nationals this year," she said. "They didn't like me, though. They didn't like doing edges, they didn't like doing swizzles and turns.

"It was a great experience because I did it with them and it also pushed me. When I teach my students I do exercises at least half an hour before, Bikram yoga, rope climbing, other stuff. I did go through a period where I kind of blew up, and I was dieting and exercising, and it just wasn't moving. It took a while to bring myself to some kind of form."

Bobek -- whose mom, Jana, manages a boutique owned by the family in Jupiter -- said there was special meaning behind "Hallelujah," which she chose after watching a YouTube clip of Lang's Olympic performance of the song.

"I think it represents what I'm going through in my life. There is a rebirth of God in my life, and he's helping me all the way here. He's helping me come out of my dark hole that I dug myself but that I'm climbing out of now. He's holding my hand the whole time, so I felt I had to skate to this.

"And also it was slow."

Bobek is getting a lot of support for her climb. The always upbeat Starbuck is helping her with her spiritual journey. Eldredge texted messages of support repeatedly during "Skate for Love." Callaghan is willing to work as long as it takes to help her build back her skating skills.

"She is taking one day at a time," the coach said. "I've talked to the manager of her rink, and she is always there on time and works hard, and they're impressed. This summer, we'll work on a program Nicole and Todd can do together."

Starbuck also thinks Bobek is getting her life back on track.

"When Nicole was young, she was so incredibly gifted, and everybody knew that and she knew that, and she almost took those gifts for granted. Now she is a woman, she has been through a lot, she suddenly looks around the world in a completely different way.

"Not only does she still possess all the gifts but she is going to start using them in a beautiful way that we have not seen before, because she is a richer, deeper person."