Skater Kuchiki Overcomes Tears and Fears : Figure skating: Now comes the easy part for young Olympic hopeful, who will compete in World Championships.


Getting Natasha Kuchiki, the underage U. S. pairs skater, into the coming World Championships was the easy part. All it took was a little bureaucratic wrangling.

The president of the U. S. Figure Skating Assn. made a long-distance call to the president of the august International Skating Union, the sport's ultimate authority. The ISU president went to the ISU Council, which took the matter under consideration and finally agreed to waive its age restrictions.

Getting Kuchiki into the rink, now that was difficult.

Nine months ago, when Kuchiki was still 12, Coach John Nicks proposed teaming her with one of his star pupils, Todd Sand.

Sand was twice Kuchiki's age, 25 at the time. He was apprehensive. Kuchiki was mortified, so "scared and nervous" at first, she said, that she often had to be persuaded to get out of her mother's car for practice at the Ice Capades Chalet in Costa Mesa.

"One time we drove down there and she was crying in the car and we had to drive all the way back home," said Denise Kuchiki, Natasha's mother. "She'd been hearing she was too young and she was afraid she was going to make a fool of herself."

The fear of flopping, however, went away almost as soon as the pair got on the ice together and saw the potential for something exciting.

"A few things just clicked," Sand said.

On only their third day as a team, Kuchiki said, "we did a triple Salchow."

But even though they were jelling on the ice, their relationship was in the deep freeze. According to Denise, Natasha had to ask Sand to stop calling her "the little girl."

"The first two or three weeks weren't easy," Nicks said. "With young people, acute changes are very difficult. And even though Natasha is such a good skater for her age, emotionally she's still very young. But after a couple of weeks of practice it became apparent to me--and I think to them--that great improvement was beginning to happen."

Still, Denise needed all the motherly wisdom she could muster to convince her then preteen daughter that the new partnership would work.

"The scariest part was wondering whether Natasha was going to mature and listen like a grown-up or act like a little girl," said Denise, who said she encouraged the partnership because she knew what a good skater Todd was.

On the long drives from the Kuchiki's home in Canoga Park to Costa Mesa, Denise tried to calm her daughter.

"It took a lot of talking and explaining," Denise said. "I told her she was at a fork in the road and she just had to believe in me."

Today, Natasha admits that mother knew best. She and Todd have become close friends--"He's the brother I never had," she says--as well as this country's future Olympic hopefuls in pairs skating. Just a few weeks ago, they finished a surprising second in the U.S. national championships, behind Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudi Galindo, and qualified for next month's World Championships in Halifax, Canada, where Kuchiki will be the youngest competitor.

"To start from nothing and be good enough to be on the U.S. team nine months later is pretty much a record," said Nicks, who has coached such world-class pairs as JoJo Starbuck-Ken Shelley and Tai Babilonia-Randy Gardner. "I've never had a pair improve as quickly as Todd and Natasha."

As they glide across the ice to the amplified sounds of "Tequila," Sand and Kuchiki are moving as one. Sand, 5-feet-11 and 165, lifts her effortlessly and then throws her as if she were a doll. Kuchiki, 5-2 and 107, spins through the air and lands perfectly. Sand catches up and they continue their routine in sync. The obvious question to everybody watching them: What age difference?

"They're both wonderfully strong skaters," said Nicks, an Englishman who won European skating titles in the 1950s. "Individually, they've got great ability. As a team, the improvement has to come from the artistic and interpretive side."

In skating, women supposedly mature faster than men. Sand is just hitting peak form, Nicks said.

A skater since he was 8, Sand grew up in Panorama City and went to L. A. Baptist High before his parents moved to Thousand Oaks. His father is Danish and Sand has dual citizenship, which enabled him to compete for Denmark in singles at the World Championships in the early '80s. He won the Danish national title twice and thought about staying in Denmark.

"But I came back to the U.S. to skate pairs," he said.

Kuchiki was raised in a skating family. Her parents, Denise and Sashi, skated in the Ice Capades and her older sister, Tamara, 15, is also an accomplished skater, although she is currently sidelined with injuries. Skating is their life. Instead of going to high school, the girls take correspondence courses from Black Mountain Academy in San Diego.

A year ago, Natasha and her partner, Richard Alexander, finished second in junior pairs at the U. S. Nationals and placed first in both the Southwest Pacific and Pacific Coast regionals. But soon afterward, she and Alexander split up. About then, Sand also needed a new partner. Nicks, who was coaching Sand at the time, heard about Kuchiki and suggested a trial partnership.

Sand and Kuchiki weren't strangers. Over the years, they had run into one another at various Valley skating rinks.

"I knew Natasha and I knew she had wonderful skating ability," Sand said.

But he never imagined that one day he would be skating with her.

"Her age was a question mark in my mind," he said.

Now, the questions have been answered. Denise even has the theory that the match was made in heaven.

"There are just so many coincidences in their lives," she said, pointing out that both Todd and Natasha were born at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank and both are Scorpios. Their mothers are Canadian, Aquarians and married to foreigners, Natasha's father being Japanese.

"It was fate," Denise says.

Denise had expected great things for the pair, but even she was surprised at how fast they shot to prominence.

"Everything happened so quickly," she said. "I feel like I'm still dreaming."

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