Naomi Nari Nam was thrilled to return to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Sharing the spotlight with someone made the experience sweeter for the 20-year-old Irvine resident.
Nam, a former singles skater who switched to pairs last spring, teamed with Themistocles Leftheris to perform a sharp and appealing short program Wednesday that won the hearts of the fans at the Savvis Center. It placed them third after the first phase of the competition, within range of earning one of two U.S. pair berths at the Turin Olympics.
"It was so good to be back out there. I missed it," said Nam, who was second at the U.S. women's competition in 1999 and eighth in 2000 but needed hip surgery that temporarily drove her to quit.
"It was familiar, but I had this strapping gentleman beside me," she said, patting Leftheris' arm, "so it was definitely a different good feeling."
Nam and Leftheris, who train in Artesia, earned 56.63 points after performing a clean throw triple salchow and side-by-side triple toe loops. Defending champions Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash led with 60.65 points. Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., were second with 57.41 points.
Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr. of Santa Monica, the 2004 U.S. champions, were fourth with 55.48 points. Inoue fell on the landing of their throw triple loop, and Baldwin pulled out of their side-by-side triple toe loops.
Peter Oppegard, who coaches Inoue and Baldwin -- and Nam and Leftheris -- said Inoue's and Baldwin's errors were unusual.
"They will have to dig down, and this will test what they're made of," he said. "They have a choice. They could go home and give up, which they won't do, or they could regroup and come back and fight."
Inoue vowed to rebound in Friday's long program. "It hurts, but this is the kind of time we can test ourselves," she said.
Nam has passed her own test. She said she didn't want to return "as just a junior skater. I wanted to be known as a great pair skater and good enough to be part of the top. We just came here to skate and to show everyone how much we love to skate, and if that means Olympic team, that means Olympic team. If not, that's OK too."