Ice Network

With final lift, Bartholomay turns page to Donlan

U.S. pairs skater caps partnership with Zhang by throwing out first pitch
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Nate Bartholomay poses with new partner, Gretchen Donlan. -Courtesy of Jim Peterson

Their final act was a perfect pitch, followed by plenty of applause.

When Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay strode onto the Tampa Bay Rays' pitcher's mound at Tropicana Field on July 29, their three-year partnership was over.

Bartholomay's new partner, Gretchen Donlan, was sitting in the stands. Zhang had already made plans to attend University of South Florida full-time.

But there was one more lift, one final move.

"If I had to pick a last thing to do with Felicia in our career, this would have been it," Bartholomay, 25, said of tossing out the ceremonial first pitch.

"I put Felicia up in a sit lift and she threw one right down the middle. Then the four of us -- me, Gretchen, Felicia and her boyfriend [U.S. skater Daniel Raad] -- had a great time watching the game."

The Rays didn't enjoy themselves quite so much. They were shut out by the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-0.

Zhang and Bartholomay will be remembered for two clean programs at the pressure-packed 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston. Their Les Miserables free skate included side-by-side triple toe loops, two double Axels done in sequence and a throw triple Lutz. It propelled them to the U.S. silver medal and a spot on the Olympic team.

Their performances in Sochi and the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships were solid, and they placed 12th and 14th, respectively.

"My current plans are to attend school at USF in St. Petersburg, and to continue working at J. Crew and coach on the side," Zhang, 20, said. "I've already set my school schedule for this year full of biology and chemistry classes that I missed out on these past two years."

When Zhang decided to call it a career, her partner was surprised -- but understanding.

"I was disappointed to lose the improvements we were making so far this season, but in the end, I would rather Felicia be happy, and me be happy, than to struggle through a season," Bartholomay said.

"It took a lot of guts for her to come forward and say, 'I don't think this is what I want to do now.'" 

After Zhang made her decision in June, Jim Peterson, who coached the pair in Ellenton, Florida, reached out to colleague Bobby Martin at the Skating Club of Boston, asking if he knew of a potential partner for Bartholomay. Three days later, Donlan arrived in Ellenton for a week's tryout. It was just after the Fourth of July.

"I definitely felt I was ready for this and wanted to jump right on it," Donlan, 20, said. "This was a big decision for Nate, too, and I wanted him to choose me because we were a good fit, not just because I wanted it so badly."

A few months earlier, Donlan and Andrew Speroff amicably ended their five-year partnership. They were fourth in the U.S. in 2012 and eighth in 2014.

"I think it was a great break-up," Donlan said with a laugh. "I loved training with Andrew and I think he enjoyed training with me, too. He was happy with the success we had and I think he was really ready to move on to the next chapter."

Speroff -- along with girlfriend Kylie Duarte -- is now preparing for that next chapter: an eight-month gig performing on Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas, starting September 21.

A day or two after Donlan arrived in Ellenton, it became obvious to the coaches -- a group that includes Peterson, Lyndon Johnston and Amanda Evora -- that the pairing had potential.

"Physically, it is a lovely match," Peterson said. "They did rock-solid double Axels in the tryout. She is tiny [4'11" to Bartholomay's muscular 5'10"], they do a very nice triple twist, throw triple Salchow and throw triple loop. . . They both love skating so much they want to train and push forward for the next quad [four-year cycle]."

Donlan, a rising junior at Boston University majoring in chemistry, pulled up the stakes and moved to Florida.

"I was born and raised in Boston and have only trained there my whole life," she said. "I absolutely love [coaches] Bobby [Martin] and Carrie [Wall]. I had the best time training with them."

She has put her education on hold in order to focus on the upcoming competitive season.

"If I feel that I am situated and solid and calm, I could take classes here and there," she said. "I enjoyed my time at BU and would like to finish up my education there."

In Ellenton, Donlan joins a group with Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, the 2014 Four Continents silver medalists, and several younger pairs, including Cirinia Gillett and Max Fernandez, who will compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this fall.

"I've been accepted into a pair family, which is so comforting," Donlan said.

Donlan and Bartholomay will debut a show program at the Ellenton Ice and Sport Complex's Summer Skating Spectacular on August 9. Their challenge: meld Donlan's balletic style with Bartholomay's athletic approach.

"We have a strong, balletic woman and I'm a little bit of brute force, but also have pretty good flow over the ice, I think," Bartholomay said. "It's definitely going to be our own unique style."

"At the moment, we're doing the throws Gretchen is best at: the Salchow and the loop. And, later, we will try to incorporate the throw Lutz," he continued. "Gretchen is such a strong skater, she takes the feedback we get and moves forward to the next element."

Competitive programs are still in the planning stages.

"We are looking for music at the moment," Bartholomay said. "Mr. Peterson is going to lay the groundwork and elements, and we are going to look to some outside resources to finish the choreography."

The big goal is the 2015 U.S. Championships in January, although they hope for an international assignment late this fall.

"We're going to work as quickly as possible so that if we do get an assignment, we're ready to go and throw down a consistent program, like Florida always does," Bartholomay said.

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