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A Skaters Ordeal

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This, finally, was supposed to be skater Angela Nikodinov’s time. After years of training, the two-time U.S. bronze medalist expected at last to achieve her dream of making an Olympic team. But all that changed last January on her way to the nationals in Portland, Ore. The van that Nikodinov, 25, and her parents were taking from the airport collided with another vehicle and flipped over—instantly killing her mother, Delores, 48, and leaving Angela with severe nerve and ligament damage to her right hand that would keep her from competing this season. Now, Nikodinov, who lives in San Pedro, Calif, with her father, is attempting to heal—in body and mind—as she tells her story.

We flew up from Los Angeles. We stepped out of the terminal in Portland about 9 a.m. A lime green minivan cab pulled up. I got in first and took the seat behind the driver. My mother and father sat in the seat behind me. We drove barely 10 minutes. We were talking and laughing. I remember turning around and looking at my mom, and she smiled at me. She was so happy. As the driver was getting on the highway, I see this car right next to me. We all gasped. I don’t remember anything else.

When I opened my eyes, the van was lying on its right side. None of us had been wearing seat belts. [Inspired in part by Delores’s death, Oregon legislators passed a bill that makes wearing seat belts mandatory in commercial vehicles like shuttles; it becomes law in January 2006.] I had been thrown to the other side of the van. My dad was standing over me in the car, trying to pull me up—but my right hand was outside, trapped between the car and the road. It hurt so bad you don’t feel pain. He pulled and I kept screaming, “Stop! Stop!” My vision was blurry and I felt dazed, but suddenly nationals popped into my mind; they’re huge. If you don’t compete, you can’t qualify for the world championships. That’s the first thing in my head: “Oh my God, I can’t skate!” I was thinking this and I didn’t even know if I had a hand attached to my body or if everyone was okay!

My father told me later that he couldn’t open any doors so he kicked through the front windshield to get outside so he could pick up the van off my hand. As the windshield broke, I heard people outside calling out, “3,2,1…” and the car was suddenly upright.

These amazing people had stopped to help flip over the van. They helped me out, and my father walked me away from the wreck.

I said, “Where’s Mom?” I was feeling faint, but I turned to look back. Before my father could turn me away, I saw her…and I wish I hadn’t. But I still didn’t know if she was alive.

They put my dad and me in the same ambulance, strapped in side by side. My father had hurt his back and arm, but when I looked over at him he had an empty stare, he looked completely lost and didn’t say a word. Then the paramedic said to me, “I’m so sorry about your mom.” That’s how I found out she was dead. I started crying, and the paramedic realized I didn’t know. All my father could do was grab my left hand and hold it tight.

When I got to the hospital I didn’t know how bad my hand was. I couldn’t look at it. The doctors cleaned out the wound—my hand had been scraped raw—and stitched it up. They let my father and me go, and we found a hotel near the hospital. My dad was devastated. My mom, who drove me to the rink every day for 18 years, was the center balance of the family—a sweet, kind-hearted person. We spent a lot of time together. We shopped at South Coast Plaza and got our hair done together in Beverly Hills. She was teaching me how to cook French and Italian dishes. My mom and dad were an old-fashioned European couple. She did the cooking and cleaning. That first night I told my father, “Daddy, I’ll take care of you.”

Those first few weeks after the accident I didn’t want to leave the house. I just sat there confused and lost. It’s bad enough to lose a parent, but to be part of it and to see it happen is triple the pain. In the beginning my dad and I had a hard time. We were feeling guilty for everything. He’d say, “It should have been me who died.” I’d say, “No, me—if I wasn’t a skater then we wouldn’t be going to the figure skating competition.” Now we don’t blame each other anymore. We can smile and enjoy the memories.

Even now, if I hit my hand on something, I’ll scream. The nerves on the surface are very sensitive. When I spin, the blood rushes to my hand and it numbs and there’s risk of injury if I fall. So I can’t skate. I may have surgery. I want a normal hand for the rest of my life, not just for skating.

Even to this day, I can’t believe it really happened. I cope by imagining my mom’s on a long trip and one day everything will be back to normal. It’ll be a year soon and I can’t believe it. Feels like yesterday—and, in a way, it feels like 10 years ago. It has got to be the longest year of my life. Time used to go fast when I trained, and I don’t have that. The skating season’s starting and it’ll be hard watching it on TV. I still may go to the Olympics this time—as a coach. I’ll watch and think, “I wish it were me…” But you can’t dwell on what if.

I don’t know if I’ll skate again competitively. But now I have other goals. My dad and I always talked about building a rink, so with me not being able to compete now, it seems like a perfect time to make it happen. It will be a training facility with an ice rink, fitness center, dormitories and a dance studio. We also want to offer scholarships. There are thousands of talented skaters that just don’t have the opportunity. I want to give it to them. My mom will be watching over us.