Willy Rasmussen started figure skating when he was 9 years old, at the urging of his father, Garret. At the time, it seemed like a good idea: Garret thought skating lessons would help Willy become a better hockey player, a sport Willy began playing at age 6.

Thanks to the lessons, Rasmussen's skating certainly improved, and more than that, he developed a deep passion for the sport -- of figure skating, not hockey. And nine years later, Rasmussen has become one of the region's top junior skaters.

Rasmussen, a Georgetown resident who just graduated from St. Albans, recently switched his focus from singles to pairs skating. He and his partner, 12-year-old McLean resident Emma Phibbs, practice six days a week at the Ashburn Ice House, and they will be among the skaters performing in an exhibition at the Ice House at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Rasmussen, 18, never abandoned ice hockey completely, even as he concentrated more and more on figure skating. He played for the St. Albans hockey team, even earning honorable mention All-Met honors after the 1997-98 season. But skating became his first love.

"I like the aspect of skating being an art and a sport. It's not any less of a sport because it has artistic aspects to it," Rasmussen said. "The performance, the artistic side -- that makes it more fulfilling to me. Skating is a beautiful art form and a physically challenging sport as well."

Rasmussen had plenty of success as a singles skater: In 1997, he won the bronze medal in the novice division of the men's national figure skating championships in Nashville, and earlier this year, he finished 11th at the national junior figure skating championships in Salt Lake City.

But he recently decided to focus on pairs skating because he has a better chance of doing well at the national level. In mid-February, Rasmussen's coach, Rashid Kadyrkaev, paired Rasmussen with Phibbs, another one of his students. They will compete this year at the junior level, in hopes of eventually moving up to seniors.

"They look nice together. There's a good difference between their heights and weights," Kadyrkaev said of the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Rasmussen and the 4-7, 66-pound Phibbs. "They are a very classical team. They have nice lines, and that's an advantage."

The age difference between Rasmussen and Phibbs, who is finishing up seventh grade, hasn't been a problem. "I'm kind of used to [the age difference]. Willy is nice," Phibbs said. "It's better than skating with someone my age, because there aren't as many arguments. Plus, he's a lot stronger."

"She's really mature. She's 12 in age, but she acts older than that. I certainly couldn't do what she's doing at 12," Rasmussen said. "I'm exhausted at the end of the day, but she keeps going."

Both Rasmussen and Phibbs have made a major commitment to pairs skating, which Kadyrkaev calls "the hardest event in figure skating." Rasmussen has been accepted to Harvard University but is deferring his enrollment for one year to train with Phibbs in Ashburn. Phibbs had to take five tests in four months to be able to compete at the junior level with Rasmussen.

"The hard thing about pairs is that everything needs to be so precise," Rasmussen said. "Every movement has to match your partner's movements. We spend most of our time on the ice, just doing repetitions. It's like speaking a language -- you can't learn it in one day. You have to spend time building your vocabulary."

So for now, Rasmussen and Phibbs are going to see how much they can improve together in a year. If they do well, Phibbs may move to Boston to continue to train with Rasmussen. Regardless of what happens, Rasmussen will continue to skate. He might even drift back to his original sport.

"I'll be a big fan of the [Harvard] hockey team," Rasmussen said. "I'll probably play intramural hockey, too. It's always fun."

ICE SHOW

* WHERE: Ashburn Ice House, 21595 Smith Switch Rd., Ashburn.

* WHEN: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.

* COST: $10 per person.

* PARTICIPANTS: Several skaters may make "surprise" appearances in the show. Scheduled skaters include Lucinda Ruh, Swiss international skater; William Rasmussen, national team member, 1997 novice men's bronze medalist; Kristina Melton, senior ladies competitor; Andre Griazev, Russian junior champion; Benjamin Miller, fourth-place finisher at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Salt Lake City; Pierre Balan, novice men's competitor; Emma Phibbs, novice freestyle competitor in junior pairs; Kristina Moore, juvenile ladies regional competitor; Carolina Berg, juvenile ladies regional competitor; Jenny Carol, senior ladies competitor; Maddie Matsen, junior ladies competitor; Katie Boxwell, juvenile ladies competitor; and Dan Rasmussen, juvenile competitor.

* INFORMATION: 703-858-0300.

CAPTION: Despite their age difference, Willy Rasmussen, 18, and Emma Phibbs, 12, say they work well together in pairs figure skating. "They are a very classical team," said their coach, Rashid Kadyrkaev.