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Figure skaters Oberstar, Baga take national stage this week

Molly Oberstar is on her own for the first time, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. She's a freshman at Minnesota.

Molly Oberstar is on her own for the first time, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. She's a freshman at Minnesota.

Kiri Baga and her mom, Brenda, live in a rented home in Prior Lake, Minn., about 25 miles from Minneapolis. Kiri is an eighth-grader attending Connections Academy.

Both Duluth-born students also are pursuing a figure skating career. Both learned the sport as members of the Duluth Figure Skating Club and will participate in the U.S. Championships opening Monday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Oberstar, 20, is in the top-level Senior Ladies division for a second straight year, while Baga, 13, is in the Novice Ladies field for the first time. Both qualified by winning their divisions at the Midwestern Sectional in November in Sugar Land, Texas.

Molly Oberstar

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Oberstar is spending a second year with the St. Paul Figure Skating Club and coach Ann Eidson. Last year, Oberstar and her mother, Barb, drove down and back from the Twin Cities weekly for skating instruction.

At Minnesota, Oberstar is in school three days a week and takes three classes in the College of Design, focusing on fashion merchandising. She received A grades for the first semester.

"It's been a huge change to be myself, and it's taken a lot of adjusting," Oberstar said. "But I like school, and my skating is continuing to improve. I know that if I skate well [in the U.S. Championships], I could place in the top 10."

In her Senior Ladies debut a year ago at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Oberstar had a strong short program, placing 11th, and then placed 15th overall after the long program.

There are 25 entrants in the 2009 Senior Ladies field, which competes Thursday and Saturday.

"It was like being in a whole different world last year. You saw the [NBC] TV cameras and you knew it was the real thing," said Oberstar, a Duluth East High School graduate. "It was rewarding, but because I wasn't in the top 10 after the short program, my long program was at 8 in the morning. That didn't feel like competition and my long program wasn't the best."

Working with Canadian choreographer Sebastien Britten, Oberstar will use North African music from Cheb I Sabbah's album "La Kahena" for her long program and a classical jazz piano version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Oliver Jones for the short program.

Oberstar received an international assignment in October, finishing sixth in a field of 23 at the Karl Shafer Memorial Vienna Cup in Austria.

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"Molly is very talented and is working as hard as ever and getting stronger," said Zoe Hill, skating director for the Duluth Figure Skating Club.

Kiri Baga

Baga started skating at the Congdon Park rink at age 4 and was with the Duluth Figure Skating Club until age 10. In the three years since then, she's been taking instruction from Lorie Charbonneau with the Bloomington (Minn.) Figure Skating Club.

She has daily online classes from 7:30-10:30 a.m., followed by three one-hour skating sessions and a one-hour dance class or Pilates strength session, dinner at 6 p.m., two hours of homework and is in bed by 9:30 p.m.

"When we moved, I worried about leaving the rest of our family, but with all of their support, this arrangement has really worked out," said Baga, who attended Congdon Park Elementary from first through fifth grade. "This has been a great opportunity for me and I've grown so much as a skater."

Also living with Kiri is her brother, Daniel, a high school sophomore. Their dad, John, and brother, Chris, live in Duluth. Two older sisters, Courtney and Jennifer, live in the Twin Cities.

Brenda Baga drives her figure-skating daughter 20 miles each way to Bloomington for practice and prepares meals at home. Kiri, an A student, who is 4-foot-11 and 85 pounds, says she does well in keeping to a strict diet, but admits to liking chocolate and strawberry ice cream.

Choreographer Kelly Benzinger-Grelle of Lawrence, Mass., has Baga using the song "Smile," made famous by Nat King Cole, for her long program, and music from the album "The Piano Player," by Croatian pianist Maksim Mrvica, for her short program.

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"I love to perform -- that's why I love figure skating. I want to keep the audience entertained," said Baga, whose speed is among her strengths. "What I want to do [in Cleveland] is perform at my best, not give up and have fun."

Baga enters the U.S. Championships with the best sectional score among the 12 Novice Ladies competing -- 115.82 points -- and Midwestern runner-up Nina Jiang of Missouri City, Texas, is second at 112.34. Novice Ladies events are Monday and Tuesday.

* The 2010 U.S. Championships on Jan. 14-24 in Spokane will serve as the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials.

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