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NEW LEADER DISPLAYS COMPETITIVE EDGE ON ICE AND OFF

As a skater, Nina Bandoni competes on blades of steel; as a politician, she wins by a thin margin.

Nina Bandoni's political career had barely begun, and already she was waiting to see whether an 18-vote lead would deliver her first election victory.

Two days before the recount, Bandoni was on edge.

A stainless steel one.

Bandoni, 48, who Saturday was named Safety Harbor's newest city commissioner, is a competitive ice skater. It's something she started late in life, and she said practicing for a competition later this month helped take her mind off last week's recount.

Skating helps to "center'' her and keep her from worrying about things too far in advance.

"When you do any sport," she said, "you have to be focused."

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Bandoni's history on ice goes back to the 1960s and early 1970s in Traverse City, Mich.

During the winter, she would walk with her six brothers and sisters at night through the snow to the outdoor skating rink down the street from their house, their skates swinging from their shoulders.

Once they laced up, sisters Clara, Sara, Janet and Susan would glide across the ice effortlessly, even skating backward without falling.

Bandoni, however, would "just fumble around'' she said, and try not to fall.

It wasn't like she wasn't athletic. Bandoni competed in gymnastics from fifth grade through high school. She specialized in the balance beam and floor exercises.

Her body was perfect for most sports, tall and lean.

Her mother, a schoolteacher, used to encourage Bandoni to skate.

But she lacked one quality common to successful skaters: confidence.

After she got her diploma from Traverse City High School, Bandoni eventually moved to Florida and attended Eckerd College.

After she graduated, she met and married her husband, Rock Bandoni, and the couple had a little girl, Brooke.

When Brooke was 2, she watched 16-year-old Sarah Hughes win the gold in women's figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on TV. Brooke was so entranced, she put building blocks under her feet and shuffled around the tile floor pretending to skate.

So Bandoni took her to the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar and enrolled her in group lessons.

Then Bandoni had an idea.

"I asked Brooke's coach if she would take me,'' she said.

At 44, Bandoni gave skating another shot.

The sport helped ease the stress while she founded her own business, Turnstone Properties, which develops residential and commercial real estate projects and assists nonprofit organizations with their real estate needs.

In September, she traveled with her coach to Las Vegas for her first competition.

The rink was "attached to a very low-class casino,'' Bandoni said.

Raised in a strict Presbyterian household, she had never been in a casino before and had never gambled.

"You had to go through the casino to get to the rink,'' she said. "I was uncomfortable.''

After a few days, she found a way to get to the ice without passing the slot machines and craps tables.

Bandoni came in second out of two in ice dancing and freestyle, taking home two silver medals. The two gold medalists she competed against were much more experienced, she said.

Nadine Pearen, the skating school director at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy at Westfield Countryside mall, has coached Bandoni for six months and has seen much improvement in the past five.

"Before she was kind of hesitant, but competition gave her confidence," Pearen said. "She's very balletic. She has more grace than a lot of other people, and she's self-driven."

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On Feb. 15-16, Bandoni will compete again, this time at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar.

She skates at the rink inside Westfield Countryside mall to get used to skating in front of an audience.

"I still fall,'' she said. "There are people at (the mall) who have seen me fall.''

She said she can do "lower-level jumping, spinning and footwork.''

Bandoni said skating helped give her the courage to run for City Commission. She won, edging Robin Fornino 2,672 votes to 2,654.

"(Skating) is a mental game. ... You have to confront your fears,'' she said. "It's the same thing running for office. There are times when you say, 'This is so huge, how can I possibly do this?'''

She practiced last week at Westfield Countryside mall rink, her ballet dancer's body floating across the ice, arms outstretched. She was shaky at times, but she never fell.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

In other news

Commission appointments

Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold Monday night appointed newly elected City Commissioner Mary Lynda Williams to be vice mayor. She was also tapped to serve as Safety Harbor's representative to the Suncoast League of Cities. New Commissioner Nina Bandoni was appointed to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

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