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Changed the Game: Despite late start in skating, Naomi Lang's Olympics bid made history

Marisa Ingemi
·Contributor
·3-min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

WHM
WHM

Naomi Lang didn’t begin skating until she was 8 years old.

In skating terms, that’s a bit late. The Arcata, California, native attended an Ice Capades show and was selected as one of a few children to ride around the ice on a sleigh. From then on, she knew skating was her calling.

The transition to figure skating wasn’t difficult. She had already taken ballet and appeared in the Nutcracker at age 6. She was already a member of Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan, and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company of Michigan.

Her path led her to be the first Native woman to participate in the Winter Olympics, where she would finish in 11th at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Her ice dancing career included a 1995 U.S. Novice title and the 1996 U.S. Junior silver medal along with John Lee. She caught the eye of ice dancer Peter Tchernyshev, who went on to win five U.S. national championships, and Lang’s career took off working with him.

Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang hold hands and face the camera during their competition. She is wearing a red, flowing dress while he is wearing a white suit.
Naomi Lang competes with her ice skating partner, Peter Tchernyshev, in the compulsory dance during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2003 in Dallas. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The duo trained in Lake Placid for nine months before heading to Lang’s home in Detroit; by 1999, they won their first national title together.

After that, Lang and Tchernyshev won gold in the 2000 Four Continents Championships and placed eighth at the 2000 World Championships.

All that success led up to the Salt Lake Olympics, where Lang made history.

Lang, now 41, has Karuk ancestry. She was one of five athletes chosen to present gifts to leaders of the five native Utah tribes, Diné (Navajo), Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute, in the opening ceremonies, ahead of her first — and only — Olympic competition.

“That moment in time will always be frozen,” she said in November 2020, before she visited Karuk land for the first time since she was 1 year old.

After a 2003 World Championship, the duo continued to skate together for some time, on tours in Europe and participating in "Art on Ice" and "Kings on Ice" with Evgeni Plushenko and composer and violinist Edvin Marton.

“I prefer shows,” Lang told Inside Skating in 2015. “I love to compete, but I prefer shows, because it’s a little more free, you’re not restricted to elements, you’re able to skate what you want, you’re able to feel what you want, perform to the people more than [to] the judges.

Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev raise their arms in celebration.
Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev react as their scores are announced at the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kim D. Johnson)

Now, Lang is a mother of five and teaches ice dance in Gilbert, Arizona, where she resides.

“My life is quite chaotic — I won’t lie,” Lang told Ice-Dance.com in 2019. “I never know what to expect when I wake up in the morning. I think every mom would understand. You just never know with five kids. Life is pretty hectic, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In 2016, Lang skated in Las Vegas at the “Shall We Dance on Ice” show a mere five weeks after giving birth to her daughter.

“I wanted to prove to me and them that being a skating mom was possible — that you just have to go out there and perform,” Lang said. “It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but now I know that since I did that, I can pretty much do anything.”

Now, she’s happy to pass on ice dancing to the next generation in Arizona, where the sport is booming. History won’t forget her historic achievements as she continues, even in retirement, to grow the sport.