ELLENTON -- Wearing her new ice skating outfit Wednesday, Mia Merrell of Braden River Elementary School approached Nathan Bartholomay at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex and, in a shy voice, said: "Congratulations."
Bartholomay smiled at the 8-year-old beginner skater and offered back: "Thank you so much."
If Bartholomay and his pairs skating partner, Felicia Zhang, could turn the congratulations they have heard since returning to Ellenton from making the U.S. Olympic team in Boston last weekend into wishes they would have a gold medal wrapped up.
But the pair, who won a silver medal at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, will have to fight for a medal the old-fashioned way, through lots of hard work, said coach Jim Peterson.
They will spend the next 16 days practicing at Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex, before leaving the United States on Feb. 1, Peterson said.
Four of the 16 sessions, including Friday, will be free and open to the public.
The Jan. 24 and Jan. 31 sessions will feature full simulations of their Olympic routine, Peterson said.
The other two open practices feature the skaters wearing practice garb and working on moves, Peterson said.
Fans who would like the meet Bartholomay and Zhang, get an autograph and snap a photo, can be at the rink at 5309 29th St. E., Ellenton, beginning at noon, Saturday, Jan. 25, for the "Nate and Felicia Send-Off Party," said Tom Lindemuth, general manger of Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.
"Interest in Nate and Felicia is just as passionate as we had back in 2010 when we had two pairs going to the Olympics," Lindemuth said Thursday, speaking of Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett and Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig.
"I think it's outstanding that Ellenton has Nathan and Felicia because it inspires kids like Mia that they can do it, too," said Marilyn Buxton, Mia Merrell's grandmother.
The open practices will feature first-come, first-serve admission at 450 seats in the south rink, Lindemuth said.
"We will open the doors at 12:45 p.m. and people will have to understand if all the seats are gone when they arrive," Lindemuth added.
The most exciting sessions may be the two Fridays, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31, where the pair will reproduce their Olympic routine in costume with competitive music.
On those days, Great Britain's Olympic team of Stacy Kemp and David King, who also train in Ellenton, will also skate in costume to their music, Peterson said.
"I will talk to the crowd during the simulated sessions," Peterson said. "The skaters will have their six-minute warmups, just like a competition. It will be a competitive environment and the audience's reactions will be absolutely welcome."
Peterson said skaters from Russia and Germany are favored in Sochi, but reminded Bartholomay and Zhang also went into Boston as underdogs.
"The important thing is that they both are healthy," Peterson said. "Obviously, the Russians will be on their home turf. The Germans are strong dark horses. For these high-level teams, this is their fourth Olympics. Felicia and Nate are rookies. They are in the beginning stages of their career. So it's not the victory so much we are after in Russia as much as setting a stage for the challenges that lie ahead. We are using this as a learning experience to build on future victories."
The Bartholomay-Zhang public schedule:
training, 1:10-2:10 p.m., Friday;
simulations, 1:10-2:10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24;
send-off party, noon, Saturday, Jan. 25;
training, 1:10-2:10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29; and
simulations, 1:10-2:10 p.m., Friday, Jan. 31.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitternote>