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From the stands the sport seems so elegant, refined, disciplined, with none of the grunting, glaring or barking that usually accompanies most athletic competitions.

From a distance figure skating is having an afternoon tea. One is proper, polite, genteel even, that just a simple burp would be viewed as obscene and merit expulsion.

Figure skating, however, is a shark tank. Oftentimes it is not polite, cordial, the smiles disingenuous. That so many skaters can remain upright after all the backstabbing is remarkable. And Kim Navarro pledged to herself she would never, ever, swim with the sharks.

"It seems you can get away with everything if you are pursuing an Olympic medal," said the 1999 El Molino grad who, along with partner Brent Bommentre, are America's first alternates in Championship Dance at the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"You can treat people poorly, you can say whatever you want, and people will say that's OK because you are pursuing that Olympic medal," Navarro added.

Anything goes, except for the knee-capping of Nancy Kerrigan. That baseball saying – if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying – is reshaped into a mind game in figure skating. If you ain't snipin', if you ain't belittlin', if you ain't smirkin', you ain't tryin'.

"Whenever anyone would ask me my goals," Navarro said, "it would say, in order, to be healthy, to be happy, and to skate as well as I possibly could."

Notice the absence of "making the Olympic team." Not that she doesn't want it but the obsession it takes to achieve that, why, Navarro didn't want it to rule her universe.

"I have spent a lot of time defending my dedication to the sport," Navarro said. "I have had to explain to a lot of people why I want balance in my life. That what is valued is not my values. If it had been my life's goal, I would have lived my life differently to this point."

Navarro, 28, wants to wake up when she's 50 and not look back at behavior you wouldn't tolerate in a four-year old. She doesn't want to look back and feel embarrassed that she used competitors like a frog uses a lily pad, to step on whenever necessary to gain ground. Competing without honor and integrity is competing without a soul.

"It's going to be a test of my values, sitting in the stands," Navarro said.

On Feb. 19 Navarro and Bommentre will be in the stands watching the Championship Dance competition. After having finished fourth at the recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Navarro and Bommentre are the first in line to make the U.S. Olympic team if anyone in the three pairs in front of them are forced to withdraw, with the exit having to take place before February 19th, the start of the ice dance competition.

Navarro said she will be curious how she reacts to the ice dancing competition.

Will she be jealous and regretful, that she was hooked more on the competition than she ever realized? Or will she watch in peace, satisfied, knowing she didn't compromise her ideals?

Navarro will try her best not to confuse jealousy with an ache. This is the second consecutive Winter Olympics she and Bommentre, 25, have been U.S. alternates in Championship Dance. They were the second alternates in Turin in 2006.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

"We are career alternates," Bommentre said.

"Always a bridesmaid," Navarro said, "never the bride."

The ache of being so close to being U.S. Olympians leaves everything open to the temptation of a second guess. Should we have done this? Could we have done that? More to the point, Navarro and Bommentre have been together for five years and have crystallized their career to answering two questions.

What do the judges want? What do we want?

Navarro knew there was never really a choice. If dressing like an ostrich, sipping a root beer float and skating to the music of Sesame Street while competing had felt right to them, they would have done it. The courage to follow the inner voice is not easy to maintain.

Because figure skating is so subjective, skaters always are trying to determine what the judges want? What's popular? What are they looking for? Pffft, they said. Classical music has been in their routines but in some of the biggest competitions, they decidedly made musical selections contrary to the norm.

Mary J. Blige, U2, Fat Boy Slim, Tom Waits, Sinead O'Connor and Brazilian folk music are a few examples that weren't Strauss and Beethoven. More to the point, and to the contrary, difficult to have that afternoon tea listening to Fat Boy Slim.

"The judges didn't reward what we had to offer," Bommentre said of the recent U.S. Championships.

Even though they were bronze medalists at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in both 2008 and 2009, the pair knew they were going against the grain. They also knew they didn't have much choice.

"We had to be ourselves," said Navarro, a 2004 cum laude graduate of Columbia in English. "In this sport, that's really a challenge."

In this sport the competition is not on the same court or on the same field or on the same rink. The competition is sitting, watching, judging, maybe smirking, mocking or dismissing. For a sport that offers so much pain – the ice is not a trampoline – it's the mental stress that can turn an otherwise sunny disposition sour. A skater's armor has to be thick, to ward off all the blows, perceived or real. The score, the result, is not an elapsed time or a number on a scoreboard. It is nothing that clear.

"Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to compete in that kind of competition," Navarro said.

Instead Navarro and Bommentre compete in that gray area that is figure skating, which offers no obvious answers, only guesswork and speculation and assumption.

About the only thing that is measurable, noticeable, is the pain of losing. And here it is, just over a week since the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and tears are welling up in Navarro's eyes.

"I thought I had got all my crying out of the way," Navarro said.

"I guess you haven't," her partner said.

And for all those who questioned her dedication, the evidence was right there all right, under her eyelids.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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