Thursday, October 11, 2001
Skater touched by Trade Center disaster
By John Erardi

The Cincinnati Enquirer


Among those affected directly by the air strikes in Afghanistan is Cincinnati native Rob Shmalo, a world-class ice dancer whose trip to Austria this week for a competition has been canceled.

“The people who made that decision have a lot more knowledge than me and have our best interests at heart,” said Shmalo, in a telephone interview from New York City, where he lives. “The thought did cross my mind, though, that maybe Vienna is a safer place to
be this week than New York City.”

Shmalo, 23, would know: The apartment building where he lives — make that used to live — is one block from the World Trade Center site and has been closed since the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.

“You realize how close you are to it all when there's a sign on your elevator door that says, "If you find any of these black boxes pictured here (from the two jetliners that crashed), please call the FBI,'” Shmalo said. “The building right next to mine fronted the World Trade Center. All its windows were blown out. Pieces of one of the jetliners were found in there.”

Singles skaters Amber Corwin and Justin Dillon as well as Shmalo and his partner, Kim Navarro, will not compete at the Karl Schafer Memorial in Vienna, which began Wednesday. The U.S. Figure Skating Association said it withdrew the skaters because of the “current world situation and in consideration with the travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department abroad.”

 

 

Shmalo's parents, Albert and Marlene, live in Amberley Village.

Shmalo is a graduate of Walnut Hills High School and a student at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardoz School of Law in New York City. He trains in Rockland County, N.Y., a 45-minute drive from his Battery Park City apartment. He had left the rink Sept.11 with Navarro and was driving home when they heard radio reports of, first, a low-flying jetliner, then a crash and a massive explosion, then another crash and massive explosion.

“By that time, nobody knew what was coming next,” Shmalo said. “Like everybody else, we were scared. We were approaching the George Washington Bridge and had to turn around because we heard a radio report that said all the bridges and tunnels into New York were closed. When we got back to the rink, we joined the people gathered around the TV. When the cameras panned around the perimeter of the World Trade Center, it was an eerie feeling to see my apartment building standing there.”

Adding to the misery was news that came a day later: the brother of Joanna Glick, a national-class figure skater who is a close friend of Shmalo, was one of the passengers who had rushed the hijackers of the jetliner that crashed in western Pennsylvania, killing everybody aboard.

“Joanna skated in a tribute to her brother last week at Madison Square Garden,”

Shmalo said. “She had the best attitude possible. She skated wonderfully. It made us realize we should shape up a little bit ourselves.”

A week after the terrorist attacks, Shmalo's apartment was opened for a day so residents could gather their belongings. Shmalo hauled skates, equipment and 14 outfits — he keeps his partner's costumes at his apartment, too — in suitcases strapped to his back. It took an hour, but he walked down 18 flights of stairs like a pack-laden burro.

“It was good to have something to focus on (training for the competition in Austria), because it allowed us to escape for a while when we were on the ice,”

Shmalo said. “We were so determined to make this trip. Vienna was a big priority. We were so excited to be representing America. It never crossed our minds that it was dangerous. But that's the way it goes. We understand the decision.”

On Tuesday, Shmalo was walking back to his aunt's home in Midtown Manhattan, where he has been staying since Sept.11, when he saw a large group of passersby watching a big-screen TV showing CNN.

“The news flashed across the screen that the U.S. Figure Skating Association had canceled our trip to Austria,” Shmalo said. “I didn't realize it was big news. The cancellation had an effect on me, but I didn't think anybody else would care about it.”

Whenever Shmalo's life returns to something approaching normal, he'll still have adjustments to make. The subway stop for his lower Manhattan apartment was beneath the World Trade Center. His tightly structured schedule — skating practice, law school and getting around New York — will have to be re-juggled to accommodate everything.

“I'm like everybody else here with a full schedule,” Shmalo said. “I have to patch it back together. I had my routine: I knew where to park my car, how to get into the city, what time to skate. Now, all that's changed.”

Next up are the U.S. Nationals in Los Angeles in January. He and Navarro finished sixth in that competition last year. On New Year's Eve, they skated at a big ice show in Hong Kong.

“The opportunity to skate internationally doesn't come up that often,” Shmalo said. “We worked so hard in preparation for the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championship, knowing that if we did well we might be invited to Vienna. There was also a chance we might be invited to the Golden Spin of Zagreb in early November. But I can't imagine (the U.S. Figure Skating Association) sending anybody to Croatia if they didn't send anybody to Vienna. It's a different world now.”

 

 

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