In the United States, summer “club” competitions are to skating fans what preseason football is to football fans. Each year, skating aficionados all over the world discuss summer performances with such gusto that figure skating message boards endure multiple board wars about which skater is the next Michelle Kwan. This season is no different, and the skater du’jour comes in the form of Christina Gao.
Though just sixteen years of age, Gao has started to build an impressive resume in her very short career. Since finishing in last place at the 2008 U.S. Championships in the novice ladies competition, Gao has started to rocket up the standings on the junior level. A bronze medal at the 2009 U.S. Championships put her into the spotlight for the first time, and her career has gained traction ever since.
As a relative unknown, Gao headed to the Junior Grand Prix last season somewhat out of the spotlight, but earned two bronze medals and a ticket to the Junior Grand Prix Final in Japan. As one of the four American ladies in the Final, she was the only one to harvest a medal in the competition- another bronze just one month in advance of the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t even have an international assignment,” Gao remembered, “so when I was invited to the Junior Grand Prix, it was a surprise. I was excited that I did well enough to get another assignment, and then making the Final was good enough for me. Winning a medal was just an added bonus.”
With all of the big names competing for just two spots on the Olympic Team, Gao headed to the U.S. Championships as a relative unknown and with little pressure to earn an Olympic berth. In her first year as a senior lady, Gao would concentrate on gaining valuable experience for the future.
At the end of the short program, however, Gao found herself heading to the freeskate in the final warm-up group with Rachael Flatt, Mirai Nagasu, and reigning Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen.
“It was all very exciting,” she remembered. “I couldn’t believe that I would skate in the final flight of ladies in my first senior nationals. I was on the ice with Sasha Cohen, who I watched when I was just a little girl!”
In the freeskate Gao held her own against the top ladies, and finished in fifth place overall which made her the third alternate for the Olympic Games. Additionally, she was named to Team USA’s Junior World’s team that would compete in The Hague, The Netherlands in March.
“Nationals was a great experience because I tried my triple-triple for the first time, and I landed it,” Gao said proudly. “Having that experience gives me confidence because I know that I have the potential to skate with those people.”
After her impressive performances in Spokane, Gao headed back to the practice rink to prepare for the Junior World Championships. As a medalist from the Junior Grand Prix Final, Gao was a favorite to win a medal in The Hague, however, she struggled in both phases of the competition and finished in a disappointing eighth place.
“I was excited to get selected (for Junior Worlds), and training up to the event was going really well,” reflected Gao. “When I got to the competition, something was a little off for me, and one of my jumps was a little off. I think that I just let it get to my head, but I learned from that and now know that no matter what happens in practice, that I can depend on my training to pull me through.”
Soon after returning home, the Ohio native had a shift in attitude that stoked her competitive fire. Fueled by her desire to compete with the top ladies in the world, Gao started working fervently on mastering a triple flip-triple toe loop combination.
“After Junior Worlds, I decided that I really wanted the triple flip-triple toe combination,” she said with commitment. “It was difficult to learn and I took a lot of falls, but it is getting better and better.”
Gao is also working on a double Axel-triple toe loop combination- a jumping pass that might confuse those who are familiar with her skating.
“The double Axel is not my best jump, and I sometimes struggle with it,” she freely admitted. “It’s such a tough combination for me, and since we are practicing it in the second half of my program, it is even more challenging because I am so tired at that point. To be able to put it out in competition is my biggest goal for the season.”
Despite the setback in The Hague, Gao admits that last season’s competitive opportunities have paid off by helping her to develop the mental side of her skating.
“I realized last season that when I commit to putting a jump into a program that it gets better outside of the program,” Gao explained thoughtfully. “As soon as I committed to the triple toe-triple toe, I immediately started landing them more often. I figured out that if I tell myself I am going to do something, then I am more likely to achieve it.”
Gao started skating relatively late for a competitive skater at the age of seven. Her parents took her to the rink after hearing about a neighbor who was a figure skater.
“We just moved to a different house, and my next-door neighbor was a skater. They heard about her, so they decided to sign me up to skate,” she explained. “I don’t remember really thinking that I really loved skating when I first started, but my parents encouraged me to continue.”
At first, Gao approached skating as if it were a playground, using the time on the ice to socialize with her friends.
“For about a year or so, I didn’t really take skating seriously. I would jump and stuff, but I was just really out on the ice playing with my friends. I liked that because it was fun,” she recalled. “When I started training, I didn’t really like it, but at some point I just started loving it for some reason.”
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Gao trained at the Northern Kentucky Figure Skating Club until last season when she relocated to the Toronto, Ontario, to train with Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Gao remembered. “I guess I’m kind of shy, so it was hard for me to make friends. Now I am okay because I have relaxed and I have lots of friends here.”
Adjusting to life in a foreign country was challenging enough, but Gao also had to deal with having her family split between two cities in order for her to train with Orser.
“My mother stayed behind with my sister because she has school, and my parents thought it was best to keep her there,” she explained. “I miss my mother and my sister a lot, but I text with my sister every day and we chat online.”
Gao’s own school back in the States, Sycamore High School, has an online program that allows her to fit schooling in between skating sessions. As a high school junior, Gao appreciates that she is able to continue her studies while training for elite competition.
“I’m fortunate to have that flexibility with school in order to train here in Canada,” she admitted appreciatively. “When I was at home, I enjoyed going to school to see my friends. Now with online school, I don’t mind doing it, but I miss regular school sometimes though.”
Gao’s sister, Caroline, is twelve years old, and plays tennis and the piano. Her parents, who both work for the same multinational Fortune 500 company, were athletes in their own right- her father was a badminton champion and her mother ran track. Gao’s parents had the sense to plan frequent visits home to ease the burden of being away from home.
“My parents planned it well,” she said. “They worked things out so that I was able to get home more frequently, but now that I have been away for a year and have adjusted, I don’t need to go home as much. Every time I go home, I make sure that I get together with my friends. My parents are very supportive of that because they know how important my friends are to me.”
The move thus far has proven positive for Gao, and she now sees how a defined training plan helps prepare her for success.
“When I first came (to Toronto), it opened my eyes to training. It was quite a bit different from my old rink,” Gao confessed. “I am very proud of what I did last season because everything I achieved was because of solid training. For the first time in my career, I knew that my programs would be solid in competition because I could rely on my training.”
Gao credits coach Orser for helping her to become a stronger mental competitor, and has learned how important that trait is as an athlete.
“I had a mental thing with jumps that if I fell on just one, I would get really upset. Then I felt like I just couldn’t do that jump,” she remembered. “When I came to Canada, Brian helped me to learn that it wasn’t a big deal if you fell on one because you can still do the jump. The mental aspect of jumping is what has really made the difference for me.”
Gao also trains with Ghislain Briand on jumps and with Astrid Shrubb, a three-time Dutch champion, on spins. Additionally, Gao works with innovative choreographer David Wilson, a relationship that has lasted for three seasons now.
“I love working with David because he is really fun to work with. He is really good at picking music because he knows a skaters style of skating and picks music that suits their style,” she explained. “He knows when you are ready for a certain type of music.”
The high school junior is proud of the programs that Wilson has created with her this season- Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor for the short program and Yellow River Concerto for the freeskate, and believes that they showcase all of the improvements that she has made in her skating since Junior Worlds.
“This season I think David knew that I was ready for something a bit more mature, and I really like my programs,” she gushed. “My free skate in particular is something that I am really excited about. I have been working really hard on my presentation and being able to express my emotions on the ice.”
Gao’s successful summer season- wins at both Skate Detroit and the Thornhill Summer Skate, prepared her well for her international campaign. At Skate Detroit, Gao came away with a combined total of 159.07 points, the highest score of any American lady heading into the international competitions.
“This summer gave me a lot of confidence, but the scores from those summer competitions really don’t count because the judging was a little different and the rules have changed,” Gao said nonchalantly. “I guess even if my score was the highest, I know that I can do even better because I know that there are a few things that I can do better. But it’s important to remember that not all of the top U.S. ladies competed this summer, so it’s not fair to say that I am the lady right now.”
With a season of junior international experience under her belt and success on the summer circuit, many thought that Gao would be selected to skate on the Grand Prix this season. Instead, Orser and Gao collectively decided to remain on the junior circuit instead.
“My coach and I decided that we didn’t want to rush things,” she revealed. “My main goal is 2014, and I did fairly well on the Junior Grand Prix last season. We just thought that if I go to the Junior Grand Prix this season and compete well, I would earn more ranking points that would help me next season when I skate on the Grand Prix.”
Gao made her international season debut at the Junior Grand Prix event in Graz, Austria, where she placed second. In the short program, she landed the triple flip-triple toe loop in combination, and received positive grades of execution for the element. Her total score of 167.14 points would have won the gold medal at any of the previous events this season.
This is the first season that Gao put a triple-flip-triple toe in both her long and short programs.
“I haven’t done a competition where I landed it both in the short and long yet,” she acknowledged, “but I’ve landed it in one of my programs. So my goal is to land it in both programs.”
Yesterday, Gao placed second again in Dresden, Germany, earning her a spot to the Final which will be held in December.
“I’m happy with my Junior Grand Prix events because I made a lot of improvements from last year, said Gao. “I didn’t win, but that is not important. My scores were a lot higher than they were last year. I want to keep improving, so I hope I can place better in the Final. But overall I’m very happy with how I did on the Junior Grand Prix.”
At this point, Gao doesn’t plan to make any major changes before the Junior Grand Prix Final.
“Before, my footwork was not getting the levels, but we changed it for this competition and I got all level threes on my footwork here (Dresden), so I’m happy and I want to keep it. I think I will just work on polishing my programs more.”
After the Final, Gao will perform in several shows before going to U.S. Nationals. Her game plan for the rest of the season is simple- to be very well trained for every competition so that she can rely on all of those hours on the ice as she competes for medals.
“I really hope to use this season to find my zone in every competition so that I can carry that with me as I push towards 2014. After seeing Yuna Kim with the Olympics, I realized that dreams can come true. I love skating, and if I work hard, hopefully that can happen for me, too.”