NEW YORK - It's a long way from a small town in California to the big ice of the Olympics and to the world stage of ice dancing; but Naomi Lang, Karuk, made the leap with grace and beauty.
Lang, now 28 years old, is a professional ice dancer who travels the world. The day after Indian Country Today spoke with Lang she was headed for a one-month tour in Germany and England.
Lang, whose Karuk name is Maheetahan (Morning Star), is the first and only American Indian woman to ever compete in the Olympic Games. Lang finished 11th in the Salt Lake City, Utah, 2002 Winter Olympics. On tour, she not only represents the United States, but all of Indian country.
Lang took to the ice at the age of 8 as though she were born to skate. ''I had no idea I would be here. I started just for recreation and then fell in love with it,'' Lang said.
''I don't know how I got involved in it; it's like I was almost supposed to do it.''
She started skating at a rink in Redwood, Calif., and then moved to Michigan with her mother, Leslie Dixon. Fortunately for Lang, there was an ice rink near where her mother worked.
''I loved it so much; I was always there.''
Lang did not grow up in a wealthy household like many Olympic stars. Her mother, a nurse, worked extra hours and on the night shift to help her daughter.
Lang's busy schedule does take her away from her 2-year-old daughter, Lillia; but then, as Lang said, ''Right now in her life she is getting to know her grandmother well. It's not as bad as it seems, but I miss her so much when I'm away.''
Lang said she'll probably spend a couple more years on tour and then, when she's in her early 30s, focus more attention on family and coaching. She added that her passion is choreography: ''That's what I do best.''
Lang said she is doing more to embrace her cultural heritage and work with American Indian youth. She currently lives near New York City, in an area without a close-knit Native community, so a recent trip to Florida and a meeting with the youth from the Seminole Tribe was special for her as well as for the children.
At the exhibition and tour, tribal youth were brought onto the ice with Lang. ''They all came out and skated with me. You never know, some skated for the first time; I like to get kids motivated.''
Lang rose up the ladder to the Olympic stage with five national ice dance titles. With her partner, Russian-born Peter Tchernyshev, the two wowed audiences and at the 2002 Olympics received a standing ovation.
Lang and Tchernyshev recently participated in NBC's month of ice dancing specials. The two used the backdrop of the Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock Casino in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
And now her passion has become multi-generational: Lillia has taken to the ice.
''She actually loves skating so much. I didn't want her to skate at first, but I had a pair of my niece's skates - little, tiny skates - and she said, 'momma kates.' I put them on her and she walked around the house for two hours.
''She has been skating since she was a year and now she knows how to lift her leg. She learns from watching me,'' Lang said.
When Lang is home she has quite a few students, and she plans to include more after she retires from touring. She also has some more motivation to stay home - she will be married in late summer to Mark Fitzgerald, a fellow coach who competed in the world championships.
Fitzgerald proposed to Lang on the rink after a show in early December 2006 just after the skaters in the show were taking their bows. It was a surprise for Lang.
Lang knows her responsibility to American Indian youth as a role model and she plans to encourage more young people to pursue their dreams.
''I try to be the best role model I can for Native American youth,'' she said.
''I grew up with not much money and I ended up going to the Olympics. You always have to believe in yourself.
''Don't give up on what you believe in. If you want to do something, you can do it.''