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Gao gets inspiration from Kim in Toronto

16-year-old loves training with Olympic champ

Team USA's Christina Gao is a good bet to medal at the JGP Germany.
Team USA's Christina Gao is a good bet to medal at the JGP Germany. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(06/29/2010) - Monday night was big for Christina Gao.

The 16-year-old, who placed a surprise fifth at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, didn't hit the ice for a big show, and graduation and senior prom are still in her future. There's no big competition on the immediate horizon.

It was Make It or Break It time.

The ABC Family series, which centers on Olympic gymnastic hopefuls Kaylie, Lauren & co. and their soap opera-like lives training at "The Rock," is a hit with girls in Gao's age group (and a guilty pleasure for others). Adam Rippon, Gao's training partner at Toronto's Cricket Club, wonders what all the excitement is about.

"Every day at the rink, Christina's been telling me that Make it or Break It is starting. And I have no idea what that is," Rippon, 20, said. "She tried to explain it to me one day but I was just like, 'um, yeah.' We did Glee, we did the Olympics when they were on, but I probably won't be watching this one with her."

In some ways, the Cricket Club's thriving skating program mirrors the scene at The Rock. There's the queen, 2010 Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim, who trains alongside Gao and Rippon under a coaching team headed by Brian Orser. Two other young South Korean hopefuls, Kwak Min-Jung, 16th at the Olympics, and Yea-Ji Yun are in the group. French heartthrob Brian Joubert arrives in July for six weeks of training.

Fortunately for skaters and parents, though, the atmosphere is calm, inclusive and mostly drama-free. Rippon describes Gao as "almost like a little sister. Our buildings are right next to each other, so we're practically neighbors.

"When she first came here, she was shy, but during the [2009-10] season we became pretty close friends. All the time we're playfully fighting with each other like a brother and sister would do everyday. It's really nice because I feel like I have a family member here."

Rippon, a two-time world junior champion who placed sixth in his senior worlds debut in March, thinks his training partner, who was eighth at the 2010 world juniors, could make a big move.

"She's skating really well, and I think she's going to make even a bigger impression this season than she did before," he said.

Gao's relocation from Cincinnati, her birthplace, to Toronto a year ago has proven relatively easy for the teen, who lives near the rink with her dad, Chang Gao. Mom Weihong Zhang and sister Caroline, 12, remain home but visit. Both parents emigrated from China to the U.S. many years ago.

"I love Toronto," Christina said. "I really like the city life; it's more lively. It's easier to get places. With the buses and subways, I wouldn't mind never driving. I'm in no hurry to get my [driver's] license.

"I do miss my friends back home, but I talk to them online, and I've made new friends in Toronto."

One of those is the 19-year-old Kim, whom Gao calls "an inspiration. She has a really good work ethic; she's really determined. Everything about her training is good. Just watching her practice is amazing.

"I know she's under a lot of pressure, but you would never know it. It's amazing how well she did at the Olympics. She's just the same [as the other skaters] around the rink. She's a big star but she doesn't act like it."

Some of Kim's notoriety has rubbed off: Christina was surprised to see that her twitter followers number well over 1000.

"I think that's mostly because of Yu-Na," she said. "She follows me on twitter, so a lot of South Korean fans do, too. It's cool."

Unlike many future champions, Christina didn't know the ice was her calling until years after taking her first lesson at age seven.

"I don't know why I started skating," she admitted. "A neighbor [in Cincinnati] was a skater, so my parents said, 'Maybe you should try.' I don't know if it was love at first sight or anything, but I kept going."

Under former coaches Stephanie Miller and Ted Masdea, Gao first competed at the U.S. Championships in 2008, when she placed 12th in novice. In 2009, she moved up to junior, winning the bronze medal. Last fall, she won bronze at both of her fall Junior Grand Prix events as well as at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Gao and Rippon keep similar schedules. Both hit the ice late, around 1:30 p.m., and skate three to four hours a day. With Orser supervising, the skaters work with a team including Ghislain Briand (jumps) and Astrid Shrubb (spins) and take stroking classes with Tracy Wilson.

In between, there's off-ice training, and Gao also squeezes in two classes (American Literature and Health) through her school, Sycamore High's, online program.

"This lets me still be a part of my school," she said. "Whenever I go back home I can visit with my teachers. Last season, I went after almost every competition."

Orser's favored choreographer, David Wilson, has created two new programs: a short set to Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto," and free skate to to the Chinese classic "Yellow River Concerto," music used by Gao's idol, Michelle Kwan, early in her storied career.

"I feel I can relate [to Yellow River]," she said. "It is kind of part of my heritage. I watch Michelle Kwan's programs all the time [via YouTube]. It's a totally different level of skating. I just love watching her move."

Already respected for her solid jumps, Gao is working hard to add Kwan-like polish and maturity to her skating.

"Last year, I think, I looked a little juniorish; this year, I really want to look like a senior," she said.

"Working with David, the time goes by so fast. It's really fun. I like my programs a lot this year; he's made them harder. There's a lot more going on, a lot more in between [the elements]."

Gao, who will compete on the Junior Grand Prix this fall before stepping up to seniors at the 2011 U.S. Championships next January, is upping the technical ante of her programs, which she and her coaches plan to debut at Skate Detroit in late July.

"I'm working on a triple flip, triple toe combination for both of my programs and a double Axel, triple toe combination for the long," she said. "I also want my spins to be faster, so I can get a higher GOE, and I'm working a lot on [improving my] speed."

Rippon is confident Gao's triple-triple combination will become a reality.

"Of course, we're not coaching each other, but [triple flip-triple toe] is something that I know. I've been there; you know how to do a flip and you know how to do a toe, it's the rhythm you need to find to do both," he said.

"If Christina is just getting stressed out I can say, 'I've been there, you can do it.' She does it beautifully when she hits it, and it's getting more and more consistent, so I'm sure it will be impressive when she does it in competition this year."

Ask Gao her goals and she sticks with the truthful, if common, "I want to do the best I can and focus on myself." Press her a bit, though, and she admits a bit more.

"I'd like to go to senior worlds this season, for sure," she said.

When reminded that means she would likely have to place in the top two at the 2011 U.S. Championships, she replied, "I know, but I'm not thinking about that. Not yet."