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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kirk makes a perfect cover girl

Jennifer Kirk pumps her fist after an error-free short program on Thursday night. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

PORTLAND – Michelle Kwan, who is going for her record-tying ninth national title today, has been on the covers of “Newsweek,” “People,” and “Sports Illustrated” magazines.

Sasha Cohen, seeking her first title, has her pictures downloaded as often as teeny-boppers go after their favorite mp3.

As for Jennifer Kirk? Her photo is on the front of the Spokane 2007 State Farm U.S. National Figure Skating Championships brochure and poster, a perfect fit from a city that’s light on gold sequins and heavy on blue collars.

Kirk, who is in third after an error-free short program Thursday night, was first introduced to Spokane in October 2001 when she competed at Skate America. Eighteen years old at the time, she finished fourth and left feeling pretty good about her program and very good about the way Spokane treated her. Barring any setbacks or change of heart, she plans to return for the 2007 nationals.

“I just found out (Thursday) that Spokane got it (2007 nationals),” said Kirk, who sat at the Spokane 2007 booth Friday night at the Rose Garden where she signed autographs and had her picture taken with fans for about 20 minutes. “When I saw I’m the person on their poster. I said, ‘Oh that’s so cool.’ ”

It’s strangely coincidental that Kirk, 20, finds herself behind Kwan, 24, and Cohen, 20, entering into the most anticipated competition of the weeklong event. Kirk, who captured third at last year’s nationals, also trails Kwan and Cohen in the name-recognition and international-success department. She genuinely seems OK with it.

“I don’t really compare myself to Michelle or Sasha or anything,” said Kirk, whose girlish voice complements her slight 5-foot-1 body. “I’ve been competing against them for a long time, but lately, what I’ve been through this year, it’s more of a personal competition for me right now.”

The year began at an October invitational in St. Paul, Minn., where Kirk finished last out of eight skaters. A few months before that competition, she had moved to Los Angeles to work with Frank Carroll, former coach of Kwan, and Ken Congemi.

Kirk had trained in Detroit for three years prior, where she lived with her older sister, Emily. Their mother, Pat Harris, died of breast cancer in 2001. Their father, Michael Kick, is a TV producer who lives in Kirk’s hometown of Boston. Kirk’s parents divorced several years earlier.

When Kirk moved to L.A., it was the first time she was alone.

“I think I was a little bit blinded by the sun,” Kirk said. “When I got there, I didn’t have anybody. All the sudden, I was this kid who was sheltered her whole life and now I had to pay bills, cook for myself, find myself around in this huge city that I knew nothing about.

“I was making phone calls to do practice sessions and getting my programs set up and I had to make sure I was skating well.”

Kirk’s last-place finish left her wondering. It was the second time in less than a year she bombed. At the 2004 World Championships, Kirk fell three times in her long program and finished in 18th place. Bad news had preceded the Worlds. Four days before competing, her aunt, who had gone to dozens of her competitions, died.

“I don’t believe in excuses,” she said. “I take full responsibility for every time I fall and every time I land my jumps. It’s like an actress and actor, you have to turn it on when you’re out there. The judges don’t care. Everybody is going through stuff.”

But her lowest point as a result from her poor skating in St. Paul.

“I didn’t want to look at my ice skates,” she said. “I wanted to eat doughnuts all day.”

After staging her own self-doubting, pity party, Kirk found out how much she loved skating by returning to the ice. In her second competition back here, she has a strong chance of moving on to this year’s 2005 Worlds field. But first, there’s today’s long program.

“I feel incredible right now,” she said. “Come Saturday night, when it’s important and you’re nervous, I can look back at all the other stuff and say, ‘I can do this.’ It makes you feel more part of yourself.”