Our Town: The making of a champion

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"Nancy Sherman and daughter Ilana talk about what it takes to get to the top"

The research on the making of a prodigy is clear. One needs a complex combination of good genes, family support, passion for the sport, luck, an early start, good coaching and at least 10 years of consistent emotional and financial support for the talent to flower. If that sounds like a lot, it is.

The amount of sacrifice and suffering is significant and the theory suggests it demands both optimism and perseverance for a family to get through all this in order to achieve greatness.

Well, let’s find out directly if this is true by actually interviewing someone who fits that category. I had heard about Ilana Sherman, a 17-year-old figure skater who is an Olympic hopeful and who lives in Great Neck. There may be something magical about Great Neck for that’s also the home town of Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic champion.

When I first met Ilana she reminded me of all the truly elite athletes I have met over the years. Whether it was Tiger Woods in golf, Andy Roddick in tennis or the great Brazilian soccer star Marta when you meet them in person you can see that they seem to be an entirely different species of humans.

They are always taller, quicker in wit, more attractive, have better skin, are friendlier, have more generosity of spirit and seem more healthy than the average person. And this is how Ilana impressed me as well. She is this tall blond beauty with a radiant and easy smile and emanates a kindness and sparkle when she talks.

I sat with her and her mom Nancy Sherman and discussed her figure skating career. Like all champions, she started young and by age six she was in lessons five days per week. As is typical, she needed to switch coaches and found Craig Maurici in New Jersey.

But that was only the beginning. After competing at the national championships in Minnesota when she was 14, Ilana was accepted by Olympic figure skating coach Tammy Gambill and she has worked with Tammy ever since.

Ilana is now part of an international stable of skaters including Karen Chen, Vincent Zhou and other world-class skaters at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Like so many world-class athletes, Ilana had to leave the comfort and safety of her suburban life, move far away, endure intense daily training and also get homeschooled.

When I asked Ilana to comment on all that she remarked, “I haven’t had a normal life. I have not had normal schooling. I had to leave my family and in fact, I had to become an adult at age 14. I guess you could say I never had a childhood.”

When I asked her how her body was holding up with all the training on ice, she said, “Sometimes I do feel like a 70-year-old when I get up in the morning. I have had many ankle sprains, herniated back discs, a concussion and some knee problems. I don’t think fans realize the work and sacrifice that goes into this sport. The only reason I am home right now is that I’m recovering from a back injury.”

Ilana’s mother is a powerful attorney in Great Neck and as her daughter spoke she sat by quietly listening with evident pride. I could see that the mother was the rock that Ilana relied upon. After Ilana finished talking Ms. Sherman said, “People don’t realize the amount of work and all out sacrifice it takes to get to be a world class skater.

But Ilana is blessed with talent and so we feel her talent must be allowed to follow its destiny. When you see her skate the beauty she possesses is astounding.”

Like many elite athletes, Ilana has dual citizenship. She now represents Israel’s National Figure Skating Team with her sights set on the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

So remember the name Ilana Sherman and when you see her blond hair and her nice smile on television at the Beijing Olympics remember you heard it here first.

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