Taylor Toth knew that pairs skating was his destiny from the moment he stepped on the ice when he was seven years old. His on-ice partner, Felicia Zhang never gave pairs skating a second thought until last May when her coach Jeff DiGregorio approached her about teaming up with Toth. Zhang agreed to give it a try, and the try-out resulted in the creation of the 2010 US Junior Pairs Champions.
“To think that a year ago Felicia had never even attempted pairs, and now we are the Junior Pair Champions really is a testament to our hard work,” Toth explained recently. “Felicia has an amazing ability to learn very quickly as evidenced by our success this year.”
Toth, 21, is a junior studying Biology and Fashion Merchandising at the University of Delaware where the duo trains. Likewise, sixteen year-old Zhang is also a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Zhang makes the three-hour round trip commute from her home in New York to Newark, Delaware, to train five days a week.
“I first get to the rink and do two sessions for my singles, and then Taylor and I skate a couple sessions together,” said Zhang, who finished in sixth place as a junior lady at the 2010 US Championships. “Then we would do off ice lifts and work out together with our trainers.”
Zhang and Toth benefited last season from a lack of age eligible teams in the United States who could compete in the Junior Grand Prix circuit, and were invited to skate in two events after a strong debut at the Indy Challenge some three months into their pairing.
“It was my first time going out to an international competition, and I had a lot of fun,” Zhang remembers about her sixth place finish in Poland and 11th place in Germany. “We both got to meet the other competitors from different countries, and it was so great to see how everyone else in the world skated.”
After the Junior Grand Prix, Zhang and Toth headed back home to train in preparation for the 2010 US Championships, and qualified for the event with a third place finish at the Eastern Sectional Championships. Between that competition and the US Championships, the couple began to gel. By the time they arrived in Spokane, they were completely different skaters and were prepared to skate for a spot on the podium. The best plans are made to be broken, however, and in the warm up for the short program, Zhang and Toth were involved with an on-ice collision with another team which resulted in Toth needing stitches in his head.
“Taylor had to get five stitches, and the team doctor recommended that we didn’t skate,” Zhang said after the competition. “The decision was up to Taylor, and he decided to compete.”
Not only did they compete, but they won the short program ahead of pre-event favorites Britney Simpson and Nathan Miller, and retained their lead after the free skate to win the title in their first US National Championships as a team.
“I’m just happy I remember anything after hitting my head,” Toth laughed. “Our experience in Spokane was unforgettable. Now when we do shows, they actually have a title to announce which is always special.”
As a reward for winning the US title, Zhang and Toth were named to the 2010 US Junior Worlds Team that competed in The Hague, The Netherlands in March of this year. They finished in a respectable ninth place.
“It was so exciting to be able to go there and compete for the US,” said the bubbly Zhang. “Although we didn’t have the best skate, we were able to turn it into a great experience by meeting so many other competitors from other countries.”
To make such an impressive debut, both skaters are fast to give credit to a team of experts who have assisted in just about every facet of this team’s growth and development since the pairing began. The US Junior Champs work under the daily tutelage of head coach DiGregorio, who also works with Zhang on her singles skating. Zhang and Toth also work with World Figure Skating Hall of Famer, Ron Ludington, who is the Director of the Skating and Science Center at the University of Delaware.
“Sometimes we also work with Pam Gregory,” Zhang explained. “She works with me on jumps, and helps us both with our technique. Off ice training we both work with Kat Arbour (a conditioning specialist and winner of the 2007 US Olympic Committee’s Doc Councilman Science Award) and Jeff Schneider (an athletic and strength trainer).”
But the support team extends far past the cold of the ice rink in Newark for both skaters.
“Having parents who are supportive and work hard to support my skating really makes what I do that much more important,” Toth admitted. “My Grandma is my best friend so when I have a bad day at skating, I call her. When I fall in competition, I call her. And when I win junior pairs at US Nationals, I call her and she is always there. My family is my support team.”
Zhang agreed. “My mom is the one who would take me to the rink from school everyday, and she is always there to help us out when we need it.”
While Zhang is still contemplating the leap up to the senior ranks in singles, the duo has committed to put the junior level behind them in the 2010-11 season.
“We will be skating senior pairs this season, and we currently are working on our program, new lifts, and some difficult spin positions and death spirals,” Zhang explained. “After coming back from Junior Worlds, we went back to the basics so I can have a foundation to build upon in pairs.”
Toth continued, “Our plan for the upcoming season really is to just go back to basics, which we didn’t really have time to develop last year. This year we want to tell a story with our programs and have a palpable connection with one another on the ice.”
The duo hopes to compete on the Grand Prix this season, and is preparing to make a strong debut if given the opportunity.
“We are so excited for this upcoming season, because now we have time to start new programs,” Zhang said. “Now that we have some time, we are able to work on many things we couldn’t have worked on before, like our unison together.”
Toth added, “As a young skater there are milestones that you set for yourself. Going to US Nationals, being in Skating Magazine, and of course skating in a Grand Prix would be some of those major milestones.”
Outside of skating, Zhang enjoys reading, playing volleyball and soccer, and ‘pretty much anything that I can do in the car while commuting’. Zhang, who is the 2008 US ladies novice bronze medalist, has not decided what she would like to do once her skating career ends.
“I haven’t really thought it through yet, but I right now I like coaching and helping out with group lessons at the rink.”
Conversely, Toth has a clear career path in mind should the opportunity arise.
“After skating I would like to move to New York City and work at Marc Jacobs International,” he said rather ambitiously.
Toth was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., and calls Kittanning, Pa., home when he is not skating. When he is skating, Toth lives in Newark so that he can be close to school and the rink.
“I live in a row of houses right off of Main Street called Skid Row. In the fall and spring we host an all day music festival with the proceeds going to charity.”
Outside of the rink the two-time US Figure Skating/State Farm Scholastic Honors Team member enjoys spending time with this grandmother and his friends.
“When I get the opportunity I love going dancing,” Toth admitted. “I always have a terrific time with my friends and a dance floor.”
Toth has a Yorkshire Terrier Lucille Shifafa Starbuck (named for Jojo Starbuck, a former choreographer of Toth’s) that lives in Kittanning, and has a cat named Hendrix that he and his friends adopted from a shelter that lives with him in Delaware.
Zhang and Toth hope to make their season debut at the Liberty Figure Skating Club’s summer competition in July where they will attempt to continue on their path up the ladder towards figure skating’s elite.