Comberger also coached Cincinnati native Russ Witherby, a 1992 U.S.
Olympic ice dancer. She won't compare the two just yet, but said the
charismatic Shmalo was always a quick study.
Rob was phenomenal from the first time he stepped on the ice,
Comberger said. He's gone to the nationals four times. Plus,
he's tall and good-looking, which really counts in dance.
Shmalo, a 1996 Walnut Hills High School graduate, knows he and Witherby
are rarities in a town not particularly known for skating. Sure, the
1987 Worlds were here, there are two pro hockey teams, and the ex-Olympians
ice shows always draw well. But Cincinnati boys tend to spin on a
baseball-football-basketball-soccer axis; Shmalo himself was a soccer
player before taking up skating.
In high school, Shmalo spent the customary long hours prac ticing
his skating. Some wondered what he was really up to.
None of my friends were into it, but at Walnut Hills all of
them came to be supportive, he said. Eventually quite
a few of them came to the rink to see me skate. Then for my graduation
party, I rented out Northland so they could see what I did every day.
Shmalo became a three-time national medalist while representing the
Queen City Figure Skating Club. He began college at Boston University
but was not happy. He transferred after one year to New York University,
where he is a senior honor student.
I'd always wanted to go to New York, Shmalo said, speaking
from his college dorm room. There's always something going on
here. I love the hectic pace.
He and Navarro, a student at Columbia University, recently won a silver
medal at the Midwest sectional championships. That put them in the
nationals this week.
You won't see them on TV yet as the senior dancers get the air time
(9 p.m. tape-delay Saturday night on ABC). But Shmalo (22) and Navarro
(18) are both relatively young for ice dancing, where the best teams
are a little older.
That's because it takes so long to develop as a team,
To reach the Jane Torvill- and-Christopher Dean level, Shmalo and
Navarro eventually will have to pass compulsory tests. You don't just
fill out an entry blank for these things.
We both realize this is our first year competing together,
Shmalo said. We were just excited to qualify for nationals this
year. I guess going to the Olympics is the goal, probably not for
2002 but maybe 2006.
Comberger no longer coaches Shmalo directly. He and Navarro have a
Russian coach, Inese Bucezica, who trains them in New York. But Comberger
still works with Shmalo when he's in town.
They may move up to seniors next year, and then we'll see,
said Comberger. With dance, sometimes there's a waiting period
where someone gets to know you. By next year, then the judges will
have seen them for a full year.
Should Shmalo fall short of the Olympics, it won't be for lack of
trying. His daily schedule begins with a 5 a.m. rise, 45-minute drive
to train in Monsey, N.Y., 41/2 hours of training, then a rush back
to NYU's Greenwich Village campus for classes.
There's not much free time, he said. I love it.