Radnor High skater's odyssey takes her to world championships

Posted: February 27, 2011

Radnor High School student Lauri Bonacorsi is thinking about going to her senior prom this spring. If she does, it will be only the second time that she has been to the school.

That doesn't mean the 18-year-old Bonacorsi isn't getting a grueling education - one that starts for this world-class skater every morning at 7 on a chilly sheet of ice at the IceWorks in Aston. For most of the next seven hours, the 5-foot-3 Bonacorsi and her 20-year-old ice-dancing partner, Travis Mager, push themselves to the brink of exhaustion and more than occasional pain under the watchful eyes of their hard-to-please Russian coaches.

It is only after the marathon skating practice that Bonacorsi's academic day begins, with classes at the University of Pennsylvania as part of its Young Scholars program - a perfect way for this straight-A student to finish high school while scooping up medals in international competitions.

"I went to a public high school for most of the last two years, so I had that experience," said the doe-eyed skater, who is as slender and rock solid as a blade, and who plans to study international relations at Penn next year.

Said her mother, Lisa Brown, who moved to Wayne with her daughter last summer, leaving her surgeon husband in their hometown of St. Louis, "Yeah, there have been sacrifices - but who has this experience? It's crazy."

This week, Bonacorsi will take that experience to a new level as she and Mager compete at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships, beginning Sunday in Gangneung, South Korea.

The skaters qualified for the eight-day competition by capturing silver at the junior level last month at the U.S. championships. It is another major step toward the dreams of every young skater who gives up the comforts of study hall and Friday night dances for the nomadic life of nonstop training, dreams like the senior-level world championships and possibly - this is hard for them to even say out loud - the Olympics.

"The sky's the limit," said Mager, who grew up in Fulton, Md., but moved to Wilmington to train at the Aston facility with Bonacorsi.

They teamed up in 2008, after Mager's previous ice-dancing partner quit to focus on college. It was the chance to pair with him - "girls usually have to move for the guys because guys are in short supply," Brown explained - that took Bonacorsi to the East Coast after an odyssey that went from St. Louis to Texas to the suburbs of Washington.

"There have been hard times," Bonacorsi said during a break in practice last week, between eating two oranges and chatting with skating friends at the rink, "but never really a time I said I don't want to do it anymore."

On this day, she and her mom spent her midmorning break dashing off to a drugstore for cotton balls and makeup pads that they hoped would cure a painful case of "lace bite" caused by her skates digging into her ankle.

Indeed, no one is more amazed - and occasionally baffled - by Bonacorsi's single-minded perseverance than her parents.

Growing up in St. Louis, she started skating at age 4 when she got bored during her older brother's hockey practices. When Bonacorsi was 14, the coach she had worked with during summers moved to Texas, and the young girl said she wanted to follow him there. Her mother said that the whole family could not move because her brother was finishing high school, but that the family would support her.

"Who moves away from home at 14?" Brown asked. "We're a tight-knit family. Nobody leaves. For her to do that at the age of 14. . . . She constantly impresses me with her courage."

Bonacorsi lived with another family that also included a teenage skater. "Now she calls her her sister. They talk every single day," Brown said, adding, "We would see each other every two weeks. Every time we were at the airport we'd cry. But she just wanted it so bad."

It certainly helps that Bonacorsi is an outstanding student, even after attending six schools in the last seven years. Her mother said she had earned a perfect score on her English ACT exam and a high score in math. She aced her first two courses at Penn last semester, British literature and European history, and could well do the same with her current studies, calculus and introduction to international relations.

"She's very, very dedicated," her mother said. "She doesn't go off and party."

Bonacorsi's only visit to her current high school was to speak to a guidance counselor, though she said she was considering attending the senior prom and commencement. To accommodate her training schedule, she takes advantage of a program for academically talented students that allows her to get graduation credits by enrolling in courses at Penn.

"I went to the prom last year with one of my best friends, so I had that experience," she said.

It's also fair to say no other student at Radnor has as tough a teacher as the coaches overseeing Bonacorsi and Mager - the 1980 Olympic ice-dancing champions, Natalya Linichuk and Gennadiy Karponosov. They are known for training a new generation of champions on ice, and for not mincing their words.

Bonacorsi said that "when we came here, we had to relearn how to skate. I felt so awkward the first time I worked with Gennadiy. He told us our skating skills were zero. When we got second in the nationals, he told us we were maybe two."

Linichuk was a lot more generous in an interview. "They are very nice, very romantic, very elegant," she said. "When they dance they look like they own the floor, like they are flying through the air." But some days, flying is easier said than done.

On this morning, the ice dancers practiced their fun, upbeat freestyle routine to music from the movie The Mask. It was going well - they are energetic, teasing, playful - until Mager fell. After they finished, he dropped to all fours in frustration while Bonacorsi skated past with a scowl. There were still a couple of hours of practice. Her ankle still hurt. The world championships started in less than a week.

"She's completely driven by her passion," her mother said. "We put our faith in everyone telling us this is going to work out."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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