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Orser says Gao and Rippon are good to go

Zhang impresses in early practices

Adam Rippon's coach said he's arrived in Greensboro in fine form.
Adam Rippon's coach said he's arrived in Greensboro in fine form. (Mickey Brown)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/26/2011) - Brian Orser, Canadian icon, could not leave his home base at Toronto's Cricket, Skating and Curling Club to attend the 2011 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Victoria, B.C., last week. Too busy with his U.S. skaters, Adam Rippon and Christina Gao.

"I couldn't leave them that week, even for a few days," Orser, an eight-time Canadian champion, said.

"The thing about U.S. nationals is it's such a big deal; you have to lay it all out there. You can't say, 'It's okay, I'll do well but I'll peak later [at worlds].' Say that and you won't make it. You have to peak at nationals, and then re-strategize if you get to worlds."

According to Orser, both Rippon and Gao arrived in Greensboro in fine form.

"There's a nice little curve happening for both of them," he said. "The last two weeks they've really kind of revved things up. They're both excited for this."

The 16-year-old Gao was a surprise of 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, placing fifth. She's had ups and downs on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this season, winning silver medals in Austria and Germany but placing sixth at the Grand Prix Final after a disappointing short program.

"She had a pretty good free; the short was not very good," Orser said. "She was struggling in practice before we went there. She went through a couple of [growth] stints this year.

"She's a young woman; she's gone through those growing pains. I think that's somewhat of what we were experiencing in November and December. You just have to find a way through that and persevere, and she did."

Gao has grown several inches since the 2010 U.S. Championships. Exactly how many, she doesn't know.

"Over the summer, my costume designer said I was about 5'3" but I've grown since then," she said. "Two inches since last year, maybe."

Orser thinks it may be more like three or four inches.

"Week by week, you could see the difference," he said. "She was fine at her first Junior Grand Prix, at her second she was struggling a bit. At the Final, she had a bigger spurt, and she could not find her axis."

"At the Final, I was not at the top of my game," said Gao. "I wasn't practicing well and it was messing with my mind. Coming here, mentally I feel a lot stronger."

For that, she gives thanks to her idol, Michelle Kwan. Before arriving in Greensboro, Gao watched two classic Kwan U.S. Championships performances: her 2004 free skate to Tosca and her unforgettable 1998 "Lyra Anjelica" program.

"She looked like she was enjoying it all," Gao said. "She had such a big smile before the program. You could tell she wasn't thinking about winning, she was thinking about skating."

Gao hopes she shows a touch of Kwan in her programs, both choreographed by David Wilson.

"I like my programs this season; they're more mature," she said. "The short is to Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor, and the long is to "Yellow River." David really picks the music to fit each person."

The teen plans to push the envelope technically with a triple toe-triple flip combination in both programs.

"I did well with the triple toe-triple toe last year, but I wanted to upgrade this year, so I'm doing triple flip-triple toe," she said. "I am committed to doing it here. I landed one at each at every competition so far, and this time, hopefully, I will land two [one in the short and one in the free]."

The move to the senior ranks prompted changes in both programs. This season, juniors are required to execute triple loops in their shorts. For the U.S. Championships, Gao will include a triple Lutz in her short, even though she has received deductions for incorrect inside edge take-offs.

"My Lutz has a bit of an edge [problem] but I've worked hard to correct it," she said. "Hopefully it won't happen here. I feel confident."

About Rippon, Orser said. "He's ready, he's calm, he's skating very well. We're taking a kind of under-the-radar-strategy this time, letting him stay focused on his job."

Perhaps in a warning to inquisitive reporters, the two-time Olympic silver medalist added, "Sometimes he's too nice, too accommodating to everybody. So he is going to be a little bit more focused and a little bit more selfish. I will be my usual accommodating self."

There have been no major changes to either of Rippon's programs, a short to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and free to Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No.2," both choreographed by Wilson.

"We've been fussing with some of the spins but there's been no quad [toe] happening as yet," Orser said. "We practice it every day but it's not ready to be inserted into the program. He's been skating clean longs and clean shorts, and that's really what he has to do here.

"Certainly the quad is a nice addition to a great program, but you have to have the other 11 elements, too. Two triple Axels in the free, that's a lot of points, especially with all the work David [Wilson] has done. Trust me, if we had a quad going on I would be the first one on my soapbox."

Zhang impresses in early practices
Caroline Zhang, who recently moved from Tammy Gambill in Riverside, Ca., to Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard in Artesia, looks fitter and faster than earlier this season.

The skater, who won the U.S. bronze medal in 2009 but dropped to 11th place last season, is still seeking consistency with her jumps. She placed seventh at NHK Trophy and ninth at Skate America in the fall.

"I'm happy with the change; I'm working hard to add speed to my programs," the 17-year-old told researchers and reporters at her morning practice yesterday.

Zhang said Oppegard and Kwan-Oppegard -- who also train Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim -- have been having her do speed drills, as well as edge and stroking classes, and her stamina has improved. So far in Greensboro, her jumps look strong, but she hasn't set any placement goal.

"I want to show I can still fight, and I can still do it," she said.