Ice Network

Hochstein enjoying career year with Zhang at side

Couple to celebrate early Valentine's Day before start of Four Continents
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Grant Hochstein and girlfriend Caroline Zhang admit that it hasn't always been smooth sailing during the two years they've been together, but the couple believes they are stronger for having gone through some bumps in the road. -Caroline Zhang

By all accounts, Grant Hochstein is enjoying the most successful season of his career, finishing a career-high fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and earning spots at the 2016 Four Continents Championships and the 2016 World Championships. 

According to him, however, the best part of this run has been having his girlfriend of nearly two years, skater Caroline Zhang, by his side for the ride.

"I want to enjoy these two competitions," said Hochstein, who will make his debut at both Four Continents and worlds at the age of 25. "You never know how many more opportunities you will get. I would love to make it back to worlds, and hopefully, the Olympics, but you never know. I want to enjoy the experience and feel good about myself when I get off the ice. Now, whether that's first place or 10th place or 15th place, if I'm happy with my skate, then that's my victory. There's more to life than skating, and I want to feel good for myself. 

"And I feel it is very important to have Caroline with me, to share these experiences with the most important person in my life," Hochstein continued. "I am very, very happy I have her in my life."

The couple has moved up its Valentine's Day celebrations to Saturday, with plans to enjoy high tea in Laguna, California; Hochstein even bought a bow tie for the date. They will do a bit of teaching Sunday before heading off to Chinese Taipei for Four Continents later that night.

They appear to be a perfect combination these days, but that wasn't always the case.

Originally from the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, Hochstein had known Zhang through skating, but the two really didn't become friends until he moved to Los Angeles to train with Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppergard. Hochstein made the West Coast journey four years ago, and when he first met Zhang, it was not exactly love at first sight.

"She says that I liked myself a lot at that point, and I think she did everything in her power to annoy me," Hochstein said.

When he first arrived in California, Hochstein shared a place with another skater, Stephanie Rigley, who happened to be Zhang's best friend. Hochstein and Zhang might not have been enamored with each other at first, but the more time they spent time together, the more a friendship developed.

About two years after they met, they started dating. Now they live together and are around each other all day long.

They typically arrive at the East West Ice Palace in Artesia, California, at about 6:30 a.m. to teach younger skaters. For the rest of the day, they juggle coaching and training sessions. Zhang is taking four classes at nearby Cerritos College and sometimes will do her classwork at the rink.

Although things are smooth now, they both admit that there were some rough patches at the beginning of their romance.

On March 3, 2015, Zhang underwent a complex and painful surgery called periacetabular osteotomy, in which doctors attempt to repair the shape of the hip joint. Zhang said the surgery only took about three hours, but she needed about a week in the hospital to recover. Hochstein was by her side during the process, helping her every step of the way on top of his training and teaching commitments.

Doctors were most concerned that Zhang could break her hip permanently if she fell soon after the surgery. The day she came home from the hospital, she did just that -- she passed out and fell.

"It was pretty horrific," Hochstein said. "She fell on her right hip. Less than 24 hours after we came home from the hospital, she was back. It was probably the worst day of my life.

"Thankfully," Hochstein added, "There was no major damage. I honestly believe it was a major miracle."

Normally concerned with performing intricate spins and triple jumps, the two turned their focus to getting Zhang's overall health back.

Always an active person, Zhang struggled with the inactivity required of her recovery. One way she passed the time was by selecting and editing the music for Hochstein's free skate. Zhang started piecing together songs from various versions of Les Misérables, knowing Hochstein's affinity for the musical. She says she used about six different variations.

"I had, well, a lot of free time, and I just kept playing around with different versions," Zhang said. "I tried to figure out Peter's wishes, Karen's wishes and Grant's wishes, and ultimately, we found this."

The result was a routine in which Hochstein exudes a passionate persona on the ice. Oppegard said that the program showcases a more mature side of Hochstein's skating, which mirrors his maturation as a person.

The role of the musical's protagonist, Jean Valjean, who dedicates his life to a young girl, appealed to Hochstein. He has grown more attached to the program as the season has gone on.   

"It's something I really connect to," Hochstein said. "Each competition this season has brought me to a new place with my skating. I did a decent job with the program at Champs Camp, and then [at Cup of China], I didn't skate my best. All season, I was waiting to see what I could be. At NHK (Trophy), I said I didn't want to sit back anymore. I think Peter helped me find something in myself that I didn't know I had anymore."

Then came the U.S. championships. Although he missed his opening quad toe, he sailed through most of the rest of the program, skating with emotion and engaging the crowd. The fans returned the favor with a standing ovation. Some even high-fived him as he exited the ice.  

Hochstein, who had finished as high as seventh and as low as 15th in six previous outings as a senior at the U.S. championships, was more than thrilled with his strong showing in Saint Paul. With the pewter-medal finish, he was named to the Four Continents team. After bronze medalist Nathan Chen injured his hip during the exhibition following the event, U.S. Figure Skating named Hochstein to the world team. Hochstein, who trains with Chen at the same rink in Artesia, wasn't happy that his spot came at Chen's expense, but he vows to make the most of this opportunity.

"I feel like this whole season has been a process," Hochstein said. "I think there were some people that were surprised that I finished as high as I did at nationals, but I wasn't; I kind of expected that of myself coming in. I don't want to say that I was riding a wave, but my momentum was building up throughout the year. I feel like it was because I was doing the work.

"Nationals was extra rewarding, because it was nationals," he added. "It's so hard to do it at home with all your peers and all the U.S. skaters. Everybody is rooting for everybody, and that makes it harder. It felt good to do my job. It wasn't perfect, and there's still room to be better, but it feels pretty darn good."

Hochstein credited Oppegard with improving his skating.,

"I think I have done a bad job of acknowledging Peter," Hochstein said. "This has been a real team effort putting this program together, and I want to thank him for this program. He gave me a piece with raw emotion, and he's helped me grow and take my skating to another place."

That team includes Zhang, who has been loving the view from the sideline.

"It's just great for me to just watch him skate," said Zhang, who said she is progressing well with her rehabilitation and hopes to compete during the 2016-17 season. "I've watched him work hard since he moved here. He's improved a lot since he moved here. It's definitely been a visual improvement where you can see that his skating has grown stronger, and he's grown more confident in his skating the last two seasons."

And as a couple, they have gone through quite a bit in these last two years as well.

"If we can make it through what we have been through," Hochstein said, "Then I think we can make it through anything."