Born to skate
Six-year-old Nykki Olejniczakz's amazing talent and work ethic give her reason to dream big
On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours before her practice session starts at Lloyd Center Ice Rink in Portland, 6-year-old Nykki Olejniczakz has time for some 'kid stuff.' She makes good use of it.
First she laughingly bounces up and down on her dad, Chris, as he tries to lie down on the couch. Then she draws a picture of herself on her ice skates (showing herself with gigantic feet) and makes herself a paper mask.
Next she cuddles her baby doll, hugs her purple teddy bear, and chases a fly.
Finally, Nykki goes whirling, whirling, whirling - imitating what she does on ice - on her living room carpet until she wears herself out. She gets down on all fours and, panting to get her breath back, allows her tongue to hang out like a tired puppy.
A few seconds later she gets up and starts all over again.
Meanwhile, as Nykki gives her incredible exhibition of joy, the murky afternoon weather ends as the suns breaks out brightly. A coincidence? Maybe it was heaven's way of applauding.
Certainly, Nykki is amazing, but she is amazing in a way that is typically amazing - it is not unusual for a 6-year-old child to perform in a wonderful way like this, with so much energy and imagination.
Yet, Nykki is also very special indeed. You get an idea of just how much when you see the gold ice skating trophies that threaten to overwhelm her family's living room in Lake Oswego. The situation is the same in her bedroom. Too many trophies, too little space.
Her mother Heather looks around the room and sighs.
'She's taken over the house with her trophies, medals and ribbons,' Heather said.
That is only the beginning of the way their remarkable daughter has changed the lives of Chris and Heather Olejniczakz. Because Nykki can do things on an ice rink that children her age seldom can do. Or even kids more than twice her age.
'Nykki can do things at her age that are very rare,' said her main coach Christy Ward. 'It's been a wonderful experience coaching her. She's achieving things that kids in their teen years can't do yet.'
'I've gone to see Nykki at one of her competitions, and she is definitely born to skate!' said Kerri Heltzel, Nykki's first grade teacher at River Grove Elementary School in Lake Oswego.
'Recently, she landed her first axel (a one-and-a-half spin and jump in midair),' Chris said. 'It's phenomenal when you have a 6 year old who can land an axel.'
Nykki has the kind of talent that makes coaches study her from the wings of the rinks where she practices, gets raves from e-mailers calling her 'that little girl from the Northwest,' and makes U.S. skating judges tell her, 'Your spins were awesome,' and 'You've got it!'
Shooting for the Olympics
Of course, when you have a young figure skating phenomenon on your hands, you start dreaming about the Olympics.
That dream may start turning into reality when Nykki trains with Frank Carroll, former coach of five-time world champion Michelle Kwan and one of the true heavyweight figures in the world of figure skating, at his elite Summer of Excellence Camp.
Chris even has the Olympic year down pat.
'The 2014 Winter Olympics,' he said. 'That's what we're shooting for. That's when Nykki will reach the legal age to compete.'
That is why Chris has taken a second job, right at the Lloyd Center rink where Nykki does her training. That is why Heather and Chris now spend so much of their lives in the car, driving Nykki to practices and competitions throughout Oregon and Washington. That is why Nykki has a workout schedule that would be mind-boggling for anyone, much less a 6-year-old girl.
It was less than two years ago that the Olejniczakzs noticed that their daughter really, really liked ice skating.
'From the first day she put on skates and got on the ice she loved it,' Heather said. 'One day she asked to have her first ice skating lesson. It was just it for her. She loves it.'
'She's a natural,' Chris said. 'For Nykki, skating is like breathing air. She's just plain good. It's pretty cool when you watch her. You can tell she loves it so much.'
'Everyone is amazed at how hard Nykki works,' Heather added. 'She works six days a week for three or four hours a day. And she would do more if we would let her. But we make her take Mondays off so she can do kid things.
'Nykki loves to be on the ice, and she loves to learn new things,' Ward said. 'She has such a desire to learn more and more and more.'
One thing Nykki already knows is crowds. In fact, she is a natural at attracting them. When practicing at the Lloyd Center rink, other skaters surge around to watch as she whirls around the ice.
Nykki said, 'They say, 'You're so good! Can you teach me how to skate?''
'They swarm around her,' Heather said. 'Nykki thrives on that.'
Nykki is also great with more discriminating judges.
'Right before competition, kids get nervous,' Heather said. 'Nykki goes out there and it all comes together. She has more confidence in front of a large crowd of people than a small group of people. She has no issue with things like making enough eye contact. Coaches love the fact that she has no fear.'
'Nykki is quite the little character,' Heltzel said. 'She sure knows how to play it up for the judges. She's so likeable and sweet. She's an amazing girl.'
This cool little customer swept first in all 10 events at her first competition, then won nine out of 10 at her second competition.
Vision on the ice
Still, talent and potential, trophies and dreams have a price. The Olejniczakz family finds itself in the position of their main purpose in life being the nurturing of Nykki's future, and that takes money. That can be daunting for a family of relatively modest means. Michelle Kwan's family sold its house so she could continue her lessons. There is also a big cost of family time.
'We have no life anymore,' Heather said. 'Skating is one of the most expensive sports there is. Our lives revolve around taking Nykki back and forth between competitions.
'We get up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays to take her to Vancouver. Thank God for Starbucks. Otherwise we couldn't live. We have no vacations. We just go to skating competitions.'
'I didn't know what we were getting into,' Chris admitted.
'At this point we can't stop,' Heather said.
Nykki does her part. She keeps a little piggy bank, of which she says, 'That's my Olympics money.' She also does modeling for Imperial Sportswear in order to help pay for her cute outfits. But the expenses still mount up.
'I wouldn't have thought a 6-year-old could wear out boots so fast,' Chris said. 'She's not outgrowing them, she just breaks them down. Her next pair of skating boots is going to cost $800, without the blades.
'I hope there's help down the road somewhere. I don't want a third job.'
Certainly, sometimes the parents wonder whether they should get off the merry-go-round when they count the cost of their sacrifice, which also affects older brothers Brandon and Damien.
But when they feel like flagging, the vision of Nykki on ice keeps them going.
'When I watch her skate, I cry,' Heather said.
This does not seem like too big a dream. Not for a little girl who can seemingly turn on the sunshine.