Katie Proia was born with a rare genetic disorder that left her with loose joints and low muscle tone.
Her legs ache when she stands for a long period. And because her muscles are weaker, she exerts more energy and tires easily. Early on, her parents didn't think Katie would even be able to walk.
So it was with some hesitation that her parents let her pursue figure skating lessons.
Seven years later, Katie, 15, is doing more than standing on her skates. The Clarksville resident is one of four athletes from Maryland competing in the 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, from Saturday to March 5.
"We weren't sure if she could stand on a single blade," said Judy Proia, Katie's mother. "She's very determined."
More than 1,500 athletes will compete in numerous winter sports, including snowboarding, speed skating, hockey, and alpine and cross-country skiing. The team from Maryland is scheduled to leave for Japan today.
It is fitting that Katie will be competing for the gold medal in the city where her figure-skating role model, Tara Lipinski, won her Olympic Gold medal in 1998. Lipinski was 15 when she won her medal, the same age as Katie.
When Katie watched Lipinski compete, she had been skating a year using her sister's double-bladed beginner's skates. Lipinski's dynamic performance inspired Katie.
"I wanted to be as good as her," said Katie, a sophomore at River Hill High School who lives with her parents and two older siblings. "I asked my mom if I could have ice lessons."
Katie learned to glide on single-bladed skates, progressing on to group lessons and then training under a personal coach. Within three years, Katie went from some hobbling and awkward turns to smoother edges, quicker speed and completing a number of spins and jumps.
"Her ability has grown," said Kathy Gates, Katie's personal coach for the past five years and skating director at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel. "Skating has helped her muscle tone and her concentration and helps her socially."
Added Katie's mother, Judy: "We thought, `How is she going to do this?' We didn't think she could stand up on skates. She proved she could do it."
Katie has not let her disability -- which also causes difficulties in processing and analyzing information -- stand in her way.
"I use my skating, soccer and basketball to build up the muscle in my legs and arms," she said. "Because of my disability, I am going to travel halfway around the world to be in the Special Olympics skating."
On top of keeping up with her schoolwork, Katie also participates in numerous Special Olympics sports year-round, including soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, equestrian and swimming.
"Her competitive spirit shines through when I see her in her team sports," said Tom Waite, senior vice president for sports management at Special Olympics Maryland. "When I see her skating, she's certainly focused. She's very poised and controlled."
Katie practices at The Gardens Ice House at least three times a week.
On the ice, "I feel like I'm flying. It feels great," Katie said.
She added, "I like the quietness."
Since entering her first Special Olympics competition in 2002, Katie has claimed a gold medal at every event. Numerous figure-skating gold medals and those from other sports fill a small, child's suitcase in her bedroom.
Her passion for figure skating has spilled over to her boyfriend, Mark Worley, a senior at Wilde Lake High School. A bronze medalist in the 3,000 meters at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland, he recently began competing in pairs figure skating with Katie.
In preparing for the Special Olympics Winter Games -- where figure skaters are grouped by ability level -- Katie has been fine-tuning her two-minute freestyle performance during practices and in competition. She will also compete in ice dancing at the Winter Games.
At an Ice Skating Institute Valentine Open at the Bowie Ice Arena, Katie earned another gold medal in the singles competition and in ice dancing, performing a fiesta tango.
On Wednesday at The Gardens Ice House, Katie went through an intense, 45-minute practice of her freestyle program that will feature numerous spins and jumps, including a Salchow, waltz and loop.
Katie skated to the music from My Fair Lady as Gates watched and interjected with suggestions.
"Good, Katie; push, Katie."
After the third run-through, Katie came off the ice, her face flushed, breathing heavily.
"She worked hard today," Gates said. "She did well."
Here are the Maryland athletes who will compete in the 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, from Saturday to March 5:
Robin Pearl, 23, Reisterstown: alpine skiing.
Katie Proia, 15, Clarksville: figure skating.
Josh Smith, 22, Sykesville: alpine skiing.
Rhett Spangler, 20, Berlin: cross-country skiing.