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Little Neck figure skater sets eye on national gold

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"The first time I got on the ice, I took off," said the 14-year-old Little Neck resident, who has been skating since she was 5.

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

Danielle Montalbano skates the way most people breathe: naturally.

"The first time I got on the ice, I took off," said the 14-year-old Little Neck resident, who has been skating since she was 5.

For Danielle, skating is not just a hobby, it is a way of life. She spends three hours a day leaping above the ice, turning so fast in the air that her curls are just a brown blur, landing gracefully, leg high in the air, spinning with a dizzying speed - over and over again, five days a week.

A competitive skater at the novice level, she divides her time between the Iceland rink in New Hyde Park and a rink in Monsey, N.Y., studying with a private tutor at home and working out when she is not skating - all with an eye toward making the national championships, perhaps even the Olympics.

The hard work has paid off. Danielle was chosen by the United States Figure Skating Association to participate in an international competition in Belgium last month, an honor bestowed on just 14 developing talents from the United States.

She placed seventh out of 21 competitors and says it was the memory of her late grandmother, who first encouraged her to skate, that inspired her all the way.

"That made me want to keep skating more, because I knew she was watching over me," said Danielle, who gave her coach a picture of her grandmother to hold for her during her skate.

She has come a long way since first accompanying her older sister Becky to the ice rink when Becky's doctor recommended skating as a treatment for her asthma.

"This is a little kid who used to hide under the bleachers and didn't want to skate," said her mother, Michelle Montalbano. "She has come so far."

Her coach, Mary Lynn Gelderman, knows from experience that young skaters can lose interest in the sport as they get older.

"The work required is extreme," said Gelderman, an Olympic-ranked skater who has trained world and national champs.

But of Danielle, Gelderman said, "she has enough ability to do whatever she chooses to do - I wouldn't set any limits on what she's capable of doing."

Longtime coach Debbie Starkman, who has worked with Danielle since the beginning, called her "a natural talent."

"The best thing about Danny is her heart," said Starkman. "She's a very sincere person."

The young skater has sacrificed a "normal" teen life of public school at MS 67 to achieve her goal, but thinks it is worth it.

"I'm learning to like home school," said Danielle, who frequents movies and shops at Roosevelt Field on her downtime. "If I went to public school, I'd have less ice time."

The teen, whose smile takes up her whole face, counts on the support of her friends and family to get through the rigors of training.

"I want her to enjoy the sport," said her mother, a psychotherapist who gave up her practice to be able to travel with her daughter.

But she added, "It's important to me that she enjoys her social life."

Danielle's school friends often accompany her to competitions. Her 79-year-old grandfather, Norman, wakes up before dawn to drive his granddaughter to the Monsey rink, an hour's drive away.

Her parents run their own business now, a financial investigations firm, which allows them to spend more time with their daughter.

Although she acknowledged the pressures of her chosen life, Danielle said she had made a full-time commitment to skating so she would have "no regrets when I get older."

The young skater's next competition is in April in Darien, Conn., for which she is currently practicing a new short and long program.

The skating world's highest-profile contest is, of course, the Olympic Games-a tournament most recently won by Long Islander Sara Hughes, who trained at the same rink as Danielle.

Asked about her Olympic aspirations, Danielle said she hoped to realize them but getting to the nationals was more important.

"And coming in the top five," she added with a grin.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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