Ice Network

Hard work pays off for devoted Zhang, Bartholomay

Peterson, Johnston, Evora steer estimable pairs team toward Sochi
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Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, here with coaches Jim Peterson and Amanda Evora, have had every reason to celebrate after clinching a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. -Getty Images

Nathan Bartholomay readily admitted that it wasn't easy when he and pairs skating partner Felicia Zhang were doing full run-throughs of their free skate last spring.

And who can blame him?

When it's March and there's no major competition in sight for months, it's hard to get motivated to sweat it out to a four-and-a-half minute free skate.

But what he also will admit is that the work that he and Zhang put in during those dog days of spring sure paid off in January. Zhang and Bartholomay were the only team to run out two clean programs at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, and those performances proved to be instrumental in earning the duo a trip to the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

"I felt like we didn't leave anything on the table," Bartholomay said.

Indeed, Bartholomay and Zhang left everything they had out on the ice. Although they did enter the U.S. championships a bit under the radar (they had placed third at the 2013 U.S. Championships but are still a relatively new team), they won over the support of the fans in Boston with their spirited programs, especially with their Les Misérables free skate.

"I felt like we floated through that program," Bartholomay said.

In addition to putting in the solid months of tough training, Zhang and Bartholomay approached this season with an incredible focus off the ice. Zhang trimmed her retail hours at a J. Crew store to one day a week and cut back on her course load at the University of South Florida, while Bartholomay reduced his time as a server at a local Italian restaurant.

"It was all worth it, and we knew it was worth it to have this moment here," Zhang said.

Following their silver-medal performance in Boston, Zhang and Bartholomay had to play a waiting game to see if they would be named to the U.S. Olympic team. The two went out for a celebratory dinner with members and friends from their Florida-based rink. Exhausted, Zhang said she fell asleep soon afterward. Bartholomay, meanwhile, said he tossed and turned and ultimately started watching reruns of The Office on Netflix.

They had finished second but only beat Caydee Denney and John Coughlin by 0.29 points, and they were well aware that the ultimate decision as to whether they would go to Sochi was in the hands of an international selection committee.

It wasn't until the next day when a text message came through on Bartholomay's phone that they knew for certain they, indeed, were Sochi bound.

"We broke down a little bit, and then time stopped for about 10 minutes," Bartholomay said.

Minutes later, however, they were whisked into a news conference, and their lives haven't been the same since.

As Zhang tweeted recently, "Another day, another day closer to the Olympics."

The excitement and the fanfare of the upcoming Winter Games definitely are upon them, but their training methods haven't changed a bit. The two returned to their rink in Ellenton, Fla., after the Championships and went right back to doing full run throughs.

They aren't in the hunt for a gold medal in Sochi. They face strong international competition from some teams that have been together for decades. One of their competitors is Qing Pang and Jian Tong who started skating together in 1993 -- the year Zhang was born -- and Sochi will mark the fourth trip to the Olympics for the Chinese couple.

Zhang and Bartholomay, meanwhile, teamed up in May 2011 and are just beginning to display their potential. But they plan on putting out clean programs in Sochi, which is something they have been doing in training since the spring. Every Friday, the rink tries to simulate competition experiences, and that has helped them develop consistency under pressure.

"We want to throw down the same two programs we did at nationals, and we'll see where that places us," said Zhang when asked about their goals for Sochi.

In the eyes of their coach, Jim Peterson, this is the start of what he hopes is a longer journey in skating for Zhang and Bartholomay and perhaps the first of multiple Olympics.

Peterson and his longtime coaching partner, Lyndon Johnston, are making their second consecutive trip to the Winter Games with an American pairs skating team. Back in 2010, they actually guided both U.S. pairs teams to the Olympics in Vancouver: Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, and Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. Evora and Ladwig finished 10th; Denney and Barrett placed 13th.

Peterson is the primary coach for Zhang and Bartholomay and handles everything from choreography to the team's overall training.

Evora, no longer in the competitive ranks, has emerged as an integral part of the coaching team. Zhang said she has benefited greatly by having a female voice in her ear and credited Evora with helping better understand what she should feel in the air for lifts and twists. Johnston's main role with the team is with the technical elements.

It was evident how tight-knit this crew is when Zhang and Bartholomay competed in Boston. When Zhang and Bartholomay finished their free skate, Peterson was so excited about their performance, he lifted Evora and spun her in the air.

"I felt so grateful to have skaters perform to their potential and peak when it mattered most," Peterson said.

Peterson said his approach to the Olympics this time around has changed quite a bit since Vancouver.

"In 2010, I was more concerned about levels and points rather than the experience," Peterson said. "This time, I hope Felicia and Nate can tell the story they love, and I hope they can win over a crowd in Sochi. I feel they're just so passionate about their programs.

"I don't feel I enjoyed the experience as much as I could have," he continued. "I was busy counting revolutions and making sure lifts were in the right position. This time, I want to enjoy their performances."

In addition to Zhang and Bartholomay, there will be two other teams competing in Sochi with ties to Ellenton: the British team of Stacey Kemp and David King and the Canadian team of Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers. Johnston is the primary coach for Kemp and King. Lawrence and Swiegers mainly train in Manitoba with coach Patty Hole but come to Florida for long stretches at a time throughout the year to train.

"There's an old saying that success breeds success," Johnston said. "A lot of skaters skate every day, but they aren't as successful as the skaters who train every day. I think that's the biggest thing for Jim and I. We trained from the same coach, and he taught us the biggest part of success comes from how you train."

In addition to those three Olympic teams, Peterson, Johnston and Evora also work with the American team of Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea, who finished sixth in Boston and earned the silver medal at the 2014 Four Continents Championships.

Peterson, who came to Florida about 13 years ago, said there has been a steady progression with the development of elite skaters as well as growth within the training facility.

"We have a great facility with ice all day long, and the facility has grown so much," Peterson said. "When I came here, it was a rink. Now, it is a training center. We have a gym and a personal trainer and a dance studio. The skaters don't have to travel anywhere else to get their training in.

"And we put in a lot of hard work and passion," he added. "We have a real love for pairs skating, and I think it's just going to grow and grow here."