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Zhang turns the page with new coach, new approach

Straightforward teen tackles weaknesses

Caroline Zhang made the move from longtime coach Mingzhu Li to Tammy Gambill this season.
Caroline Zhang made the move from longtime coach Mingzhu Li to Tammy Gambill this season. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/30/2010) - Caroline Zhang is no Stepford skater.

The 17-year-old Californian, whose dreams of competing at the Vancouver Olympics were derailed by an 11th-place finish at the 2010 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, tells it like it is.

"Last season was not my idea of fun," she said.

If you don't like something, change it, and that's just what Zhang, a former wunderkind who won the 2007 world junior title and 2009 U.S. bronze medal, did.

She moved from longtime mentor Li Mingzhu to Tammy Gambill, a Riverside, Calif., coach known for instilling strong jump technique in her pupils. She enlisted David Wilson, choreographer to the stars, for a more expressive free skate.

In short, she took a good, hard look at herself and her skating.

"Last year, I felt like I was well-prepared for nationals," Zhang said, pausing for a second to consider what went wrong.

"I have to trust myself more, be more confident. This season I'm back to skating for myself. [Last season] there was the pressure of the Olympics; when that was off, I was happy I skated decent programs at Four Continents -- not my best, but decent." [Zhang won bronze at that event, behind Japanese skaters Mao Asada and Akiko Suzuki].

Zhang is well aware of the criticisms of her skating -- her speed, the unusually high "kick" entrance to toe jumps -- and she and Gambill are addressing them.

"Oh, I'm working on it," she said. "Everybody says I have a high kick. I know it, too. I'm changing it, and I hope everyone notices it. I know I'm happy about it.

"I'm fixing the edge [take-off on the triple Lutz], too, and I'm adding speed going into my double Axel."

Like many intelligent, strong-willed people, Zhang -- who is renowned for spins, especially the signature "pearl," and the flexibility and extension of her spirals -- hasn't always been known as an ideal pupil. Last season's disappointment seems to have snapped her into focus.

"I think nationals was a lot more motivating than anything else," she said. "Not making the [2010] team -- and thinking about possibly not making the 2014 team, unless I made some changes -- that's really pushed me."

Gambill, who also coaches Junior Grand Prix competitors Ricky Dornbush and Lindsay Davis, says Zhang has been receptive to a new approach.

"Caroline is much more determined this year," Gambill said. "She knows how much she gets out [of training] is determined by how much she puts into it. She's grown up, mature, and a delight to work with -- most of the time."

About the aforementioned kick, Gambill said, "I can already see improvement; it's a big step."

The two are also working to add speed to Zhang's programs.

"Oh, absolutely every day, it's a priority," Gambill said. "I'm always pushing her."

While Gambill is her primary coach, Zhang also works regularly with Galina Barinova, a former Bolshoi ballerina who has also worked with Evan Lysacek, and veteran coach Sondra Holmes, who works with many of Gambil's pupils. The skater's family recently moved from Brea to Corona, nearer to Gambil's rink.

"I like have a team behind me; I think it makes me work a lot harder," Zhang said. "I think there's been a big improvement."

With Wilson and Tom Dickson, the Colorado Springs-based choreographer who crafted her short program, the skater is focusing on ramping up her performance quality.

"I wanted to try something new; probably in the past, I haven't expressed myself enough [on the ice]," she said.

Zhang got her programs -- a short to Piazzolla's "Libertango" and free to "Cello concerto in B Minor" by Dvorak -- done in June and July.

"Tom Dickson played the [Tango] for me early on, and then he told me to listen to other [pieces], but I still picked it," she said. "It's very different from other things I've done.

"And I love working with David Wilson; he's really helping me with the transitions, and expressing the program more."

Another sign of dedication: Zhang is already thinking ahead to Sochi 2014. Home schooled, she enters her senior year of high school this fall and took SAT prep classes over the summer. But while she may apply to colleges this fall, she's uncertain of when she will attend.

"I'm just not sure about college yet," she said. "I want to go to a good school, but I want to stay in [eligible competition] until 2014. My sister [Yang Yang] went to MIT and I saw how much hard work something like that is. So I might hold off, maybe take a few classes, and then [go full time] after 2014."

Zhang is slated to compete at NHK Trophy and Skate America this fall.