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Go Figure: Moorhead's Mark Ladwig laces up his skates tonight in the Olympics

Long before he became an Olympic figure skater, Mark Ladwig was a sixth-grader coping with news that he didn't get picked to play on a Moorhead youth hockey team.

Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora
Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora will be one of two figure-skating pairs representing the United States at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.(Associated Press)

Long before he became an Olympic figure skater, Mark Ladwig was a sixth-grader coping with news that he didn't get picked to play on a Moorhead youth hockey team.

"He was devastated," said Ladwig's mother, Carol. "That's when I went to Scheels and bought him a pair of black figure skates."

She dropped him off with Dawn Franklin, a coach with the Red River Valley Figure Skating Club. The rest -- as Franklin puts it -- is history.

Tonight and Monday, 29-year-old Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora will be one of two figure-skating pairs representing the United States at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

More than two decades of hard work has finally paid off. You name it, Ladwig has done just about everything to keep his Olympic dream alive:

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-- Working the graveyard shift as a high school disc jockey for Froggy 99.9.

-- Skating as an understudy for an ice show in New York City's Rockefeller Center.

-- Waiting tables at a high-end restaurant in Tampa, Fla.

-- Sharpening skates and driving the Zamboni at the Ellenton (Fla.) Ice and Sports Complex he has called home for the past six years.

"A lot of people don't understand how intense it is, how hard it is and how expensive it is," said Carol Ladwig, who estimates she, her husband, John, and Mark have spent more than $300,000 on the sport since Mark began skating.

And it all started with 4:30 a.m. practices in the Moorhead Sports Center, where Ladwig was adapting to his new figure skates. Instead of gliding on the blades of a hockey skate, Ladwig was now learning to master the figure skate's toe pick.

"He was constantly tripping," Franklin said. "But he stuck it out."

As one of the only boys to perform at the annual Moorhead Ice Show, Ladwig also endured a lot of teasing. That's why he made it a point to go out for track and field -- he once pole vaulted 11ยฝ feet. Ladwig also went out for freshman football -- he earned the "flatback award" for producing the best tackle.

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As a high school senior, he was the first male to be asked to figure skate between periods at a Moorhead High School hockey game.

"It's hard to be a male figure skater in a town where hockey is so popular ... that was hard for him," Franklin said. "But by the time he performed at that hockey game, he was a gold-level free skater doing double jumps and working on triples. So he was received pretty well."

He's also been well-received at Florida's Ellenton Complex, where more than 700 fans gathered last week to watch Ladwig and Evora practice.

"I felt like Britney Spears receiving all that attention," said Ladwig, who is, by most accounts, the longest-tenured employee at the Ellenton Complex.

It's where he has sharpened countless pairs of hockey and figure skates, including his and Evora's.

"I feel like McDonald's with millions served," Ladwig joked.

It's where he has a cot set up to catch an occasional afternoon nap. It's where he has cut music, run the lights and set up props for skating programs. It's where he monitors open skating, feeling like "a Disney greeter making sure skates are tied properly and people don't kill each other."

He's done this to get free ice time -- allowing him to practice and become an Olympian. He's done this hoping his Olympic appearance will help him get rid of his credit card debt and perhaps replace his 1991 Honda Civic that has no air conditioning and windows that don't work.

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"He is a jack of all trades here," said Lyndon Johnston of the Ellenton Complex, who coaches Ladwig and Evora. "That work ethic definitely transfers onto the ice. That's one of the reasons they have been so successful in the last two years. Their perseverance is probably the best in the nation."

Ladwig and Evora have been skating together since 2003, when they finished 12th at the U.S. National Championships. After one 10th-place finish, one seventh, two fifths and two fourths, they finally posted a coveted second-place finish a few weeks ago in Spokane, Wash., qualifying for the Olympics.

John, a MeritCare physician, and Carol, a stay-at-home mom, were there. His brother, Todd, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy stationed in Japan, was there. So was his sister, Erin, a dental-school student in Baltimore.

Janet, his wife of nearly four years who graduated from Moorhead High School with Ladwig, was there holding their 4-month-old-son, Holden.

"Once it became a reality, even my wife could barely get down the stairs to give me a hug and kiss," Ladwig said of his Olympic qualification. "It has been a wild ride."

A ride that began long ago when he wasn't picked to play on that Moorhead youth hockey team.

"I wasn't a very good stick-handler but still had a love for skating," said Ladwig, who nearly 20 years later is teaching kids at the Ellenton Complex how to play hockey. "Strictly power skating ... no stick handling."

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