It is easy to forget that Caroline Zhang is just 18 years old. The 2011 high school graduate’s résumé includes the 2007 World Junior title, a U.S. championship senior medal and a variety of hardware from major international competitions.
After two consecutive seasons of poor performances, and just when it seemed that Zhang’s time had passed, the southern California native got back on track this season and started skating like a contender once again.
Looking stronger and more prepared than she had in a long time, Zhang still had her work cut out for her. “It was definitely difficult to come back from the disappointing skates I had the last couple of seasons,” she admitted.
“But I’ve been able to use that as motivation to keep pushing myself to improve and hope that I will be able to keep going on the right path.
“Despite what people thought or wrote, I was never unhappy while skating,” she said candidly. “I am and always have been truly happy while skating. It was my disappointment with how I was performing that gave the impression I was unhappy.”
Fueled by that desire, Zhang committed to one full year of nothing else but skating.
She retained the coaching team of Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan in January of 2011, and the chemistry seems to be working.
“I had watched Peter and Karen teach for a while and always liked their training methods,” Zhang said. “They help me with my confidence, which has been an issue for me, as well as improving the consistency and technique of my jumps.”
Zhang opened this season with a respectable sixth-place finish at Skate America. A few weeks later she won her first title in nearly five years at the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria. She was back on track.
“The change in my performances this year was triggered by a number of things,” she explained. “I changed my overall outlook on skating and took a different approach to training, both mentally and physically.”
Prior to the 2012 U.S. Championships, her training plan went into high gear. “We focused more on jump consistency, and training programs in different situations,” Zhang explained. “I also started doing double run-throughs a couple of months before nationals.”
A fourth-place finish at nationals was secondary to the bigger picture. “I had not set any expectations placement-wise, but I accomplished personal goals that I had set for myself, and I am very happy with that,” she said. “I have not yet encountered a competition in which I felt that I had done everything I could.
There is always room for improvement.”
Zhang headed to Four Continents a couple of weeks later where she placed fourth after the short program, landing the triple loop-triple loop combination in competition for the first time.
“It was important for me to get the combination in competition this season because this is a transition year for me,” she explained. “It is a jump that I have had for a couple of years but had never focused on putting into a competition program. I received a downgrade at nationals, but I went home and worked on it before Four Continents and was happy to have it ratified there.”
Zhang closed out the free program with her trademark pearl spin, for which she received a perfect score. In the end she claimed the bronze medal.
“The spin is pretty easy for me to do. I do it at least twice a day, since it is in both of my programs,” she said. “I don't have to do anything special warm-up wise, just the normal stretching I do before each session.”
With her season complete, Zhang is already chomping at the bit to begin preparations for next year. “I’m not taking a break,” she said. “I was excited to get back to the rink the day after Four Continents. There are so many things to work on, and I’m happy to start.”
While many of her former classmates are making college plans Zhang has deferred continuing her education for a year to see how far she can take her skating career. “I love the idea of going to college, but this would not be the best time. When I do go I want to give it my full attention and get the full experience,” she explained.
“Right now that is not possible because my focus is totally on skating. I don’t want to do anything that would distract me from putting my full effort into it."
Originally published in April 2012