Brenna Doherty's dream of becoming a world-class figure skater has had its share of bumpy landings. They began when Doherty was a freshman at Oakland Mills High in Columbia. After making the finals at junior nationals at ages 13 and 14, Doherty thought she wanted to try being a typical teenager.
"When I first entered high school, I wanted to be a part of the Homecoming committee, and all kinds of stuff like that," Doherty, now 18, recalled recently. "I followed my friends and joined some of their clubs, but I definitely decided it wasn't for me. I wanted to go to the ice rink every day and train."
It meant a four-year commitment that led to Doherty's spending much of her weekday afternoons commuting after school to the University of Delaware to train under internationally renowned coaches Pam Gregory and Philip Dulebohn. She returned in the early evening to Howard County.
Yet as the mileage piled up — she now has more than 78,000 miles on her 2010 Ford Focus — something was still missing. Doherty began questioning whether she wanted to continue skating after high school or start her engineering studies at Delaware, where she was offered a scholarship.
"The last couple of years, there were a lot of changes in my life, and school became very important for me," Doherty said. "For a while, I got wrapped up [again] in the idea of being a normal high school student. The last year and a half, I really found my love for skating again."
But by the time Doherty was ready to graduate last spring as a straight-A student, her career as a singles skater had taken a tumble. She failed to make it past the Eastern regional finals in juniors throughout high school and knew that her goal of skating in the Olympics was beginning to fade.
So Doherty reinvented herself — as a pairs skater.
"It was something I was always interested in trying," she said. "My coaches saw that I had something special going on as a pairs skater [when she tried it] and they really encouraged me to find a partner so that my skating talents didn't go to waste."
Doherty connected with her partner, Craig Norris of Oakland, Calif., through an online service called IcePartnerSearch.com. She left Maryland the day after high school graduation and drove cross-country to Southern California with her mother, Kathy.
Eight months after taking her first pairs lesson, and less than six months after she and the 22-year-old Norris began to train under the coaching of the husband-wife team of former three-time national champions Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, Doherty is invigorated by the prospects of her new career.
"In many aspects, it was definitely like starting over," Doherty said. "You still have to have the jumping and spinning skills that you needed for singles skating, but there are so many new elements that I had to learn. Every day I come to the rink, I learn something new."
In a short time, Doherty and Norris have done well enough together to be one of 12 pairs — three of which are trained by Sand and Meno — to qualify for this year's U.S. Figure Skating Junior Championships, scheduled to be held Wednesday through Saturday in Omaha, Neb.
Doherty said it is a prelude to the pair starting on the senior circuit "in February or March," with the long-term goal of making the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Doherty said she has progressed rapidly through junior pairs by moving up "six different levels" [of skill] and has bonded well with Norris, a former singles skater who has been with three other skating partners the past four years.
"He has helped me pick up the skills pretty quickly," Doherty said. "We've worked really well together. Because we're so new, it gives us the time to develop and get to know each other. I think 2018 [for the Olympics] is a very realistic goal for us."
Asked what her biggest challenge is in becoming a pairs skater, Doherty said: "Learning how to work with somebody else on a daily basis, learning how to work with a person that you never really met before and connect with them and perform all these difficult elements. It has made me become a better skater."
Norris, who skated singles in international competitions at age 15 as a novice before turning to pairs said that "in pairs, many of the stars have to be aligned — it has to be a physical match, a match of personality and work ethic." It has been a perfect match so far, according to Norris.
"She's fantastic," he said. "She's an incredibly hard worker, she's one of the most determined partners I've ever come across and the quickest I've ever seen picking this up. How far she has come has really blown me and our coaches away."
Sand, who competed for Denmark and the United States, said Doherty reminds him of his wife, also a converted singles skater, because of her businesslike approach to on- and off-ice workouts.
"Jenni was very determined, and Brenna is a lot like that," Sand said. "She's so serious, we have to get her to lighten up sometimes. She really approaches it as a craft; she covers all the bases. I hold her up as an example of how to do it."
Sand said the singles background of both Doherty and Norris give them an advantage over other pairs "because they can do all the jumps — that's her strength. It's typically the Achilles' heel for pairs since one or both can't do them."
The transition to pairs is only part of Doherty's new life. She is living in Irvine, Calif., . with Christine Fowler-Binder, her skating choreographer who is originally from Baltimore, and Fowler-Binder's husband and children. Doherty trains at a rink about 20 minutes away in Aliso Viejo, a much easier commute than the one she had in high school.
"The weather is great every day and the skating environment is very competitive," Doherty said. "It's been the best situation for me. I have my own little space in her house, so it allows me to have the support that I needed moving cross-country, just not being on my own all of a sudden."
But there are still plenty of connections back to Maryland and her skating roots, which began when took her first lessons in Columbia at age 6.
Doherty represents the University of Delaware club where she trained during high school, has her costumes designed by Terri Jackson of Born to Skate in Severna Park and has used Mike Cunningham of Skater's Paradise in Waldorf for her boots and blades since she was 8.
"As much as she loves the training environment in CA, in many ways she is still a hometown girl," Kathy Doherty, who Skypes with her daughter amost every night, wrote in an email.
Brenna Doherty has not put away her dream of becoming an aerospace engineer. She said she has finished online college courses in macroeconomics as well as calculus I and II, and is about to start a chemistry course.
"I always prefer to be really busy than to have too much time on my hands," Doherty said. "After I'm done with my workouts, I study from about 3 to 6 p.m. It kind of balances me out a little bit so I don't have to just focus on my skating. It makes me do better in both of them because I want to succeed in both. It works really well."
Ultimately, after her skating career is over, Doherty said she would like to work for NASA because "it's very exciting for me to learn about the unknown in space, anything with space shuttles — the constructing and the designing and the unknown of what NASA has."
For now, there's a different kind of unknown — trying to refocus her long-standing dream of becoming an Olympic figure skater. The transition, however easy it has been so far, will likely have its own bumps along the way. But given what she has gone through in recent years, Doherty is prepared.
"It was hard in one sense, but in another was it was also very encouraging because it gave me something to strive for to see how far I've come in eight months," Doherty said of the transition. "To have qualified for the nationals, it's a very exciting time."