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'Wunderkids' ready to take center ice

Zhang, Nagasu and Flatt will challenge for podium finishes

Can Caroline Zhang unseat U.S. champion Kimmie Meisser at U.S. Championships?
Can Caroline Zhang unseat U.S. champion Kimmie Meisser at U.S. Championships? (Getty Images)

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By Linda Przygodski
(01/24/2008) - Being a 'wunderkid' at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships doesn't necessarily mean you're making it to the world stage.

Young skaters can be equipped with every triple-triple combination in the book, but that won't get them to Gothenburg, Sweden, site of the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships. Nothing can. It's not a problem with the quality of performances; it's International Skating Union regulation 108-2, which requires any skater at worlds be 15 or older by July 1 of the preceding year.

Caroline Zhang, who has emerged as a gold-medal contender after Kimberly Meissner's unexpected off-the-podium finish at the ISU Grand Prix Final , could win the senior ladies title and still not earn a ticket to Gothenburg. Zhang, the 2006 Junior Grand Prix Final champion and 2007 world junior champion, is 14 and won't be eligible for ISU senior championships until 2009.

The tiny powerhouse arrived in Saint Paul confident and composed, resolutely sticking to the good old "I just want to skate my best" routine during her initial interviews.

"I do want to be on the podium here," she said. "I want to skate two clean programs. "It would be a lot of fun to go to worlds, but I know that there are age restrictions."

The Californian did have one complaint: "They told me it was cold here, but I didn't know it would be this cold" she said of Saint Paul's -30 Fahrenheit temperatures.

But will Zhang's programs truly be clean? While early results in the novice and junior ladies programs indicate that the technical controllers here may be less-than-stringent in deducting for under-rotated jumps, Zhang lost points in her Grand Prix events this season for "cheated" triples and wrong-edge take-offs.

"I'm not so worried," Ming Zhu Li, Zhang's coach, said. "Everything is pretty consistent right now. She is kind of nervous, because there are so many people here, but she is doing pretty good in practice."

Ming has mixed feelings about the ISU age rule that will keep her pupil out of worlds.

"Actually, I think [the ISU] is really thinking about that rule, because it has kept girls out of worlds before, like Mao Asada," she said. "I'm okay with it, I accept it. I really can't think about it too much, because I can't change it.

"It is a big question for the ISU, though. Maybe it will change some day. Even if it does, I do know little kids do need more training time to be consistent, and it's not good to push them so much and be in a big hurry."

Despite the judging system's new emphasis on analyzing jumps for correct take-off edges, Ming is keeping two triple Lutzes in Zhang's free program. (Like many skaters, the teen executes this jump off of the inside, instead of outside, edge.) If the technical and judging panels adhere strictly to ISU rules, that decision alone may cost Zhang at least two points, and possibly several more.

Jumps aside, with her extraordinary flexibility, winning personality and signature 'pearl' spin position; pundits argue that the U.S. Championships may be Zhang's moment to shine. It may also be her final competition of the season; the skater's camp is undecided about whether she will travel to world juniors and try to repeat there as champion.

The other two ISU age-ineligible athletes vying for podium spots are Californian Mirai Nagasu and Colorado Springs-based Rachael Flatt.

Nagasu is arriving here after having a breakout competitive season. Her junior win over Zhang at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Championships caught everyone by surprise. In 2006, she had failed to qualify, and she came into the event last year as a virtual unknown.

"I feel really good coming in here," said Nagasu. "I just want to skate two good, solid programs. Each competition has been a learning experience. I am getting more used to the media; it was kind of a shock at first to have attention, now its fun.

"I haven't thought about getting a medal, all that will just be the results of skating good programs. Right now I am working on cleaning up my jumps and getting them more consistent."

That's something coach Charlene Wong thinks Nagasu has already mastered.

"[Interrupting] Mirai, your jumps are clean! We are focusing on the total package: the spins, the jumps and the component marks."

Nagasu, however, is always looking to spice up her free skate.

"Depending on how I do in practice, I may do the triple Lutz-triple toe," she revealed.

Nagasu's star continued its rise earlier this season when she competed in a Japanese television special, the International Counter Match between the United States and Japan. Because of her Japanese heritage, she is a heavily covered athlete in that country, commanding as much attention as homegrown stars Miki Ando and Mao Asada.

It's an interesting turn, considering that in 2005, Asada was denied entry to the Turin Olympic Games, as well as the world championships due to her age.

Wong said that there's not really much one can do where age restrictions are in place. Athletes need to just concentrate on giving their skates 100 percent.

"Is there ever a problem in doing well?" said Wong. "We just have to focus on skating well at each competition. You have to go with the flow, and with the changes in the sport, talking about worlds is all in the future. We just have this week to contend with. We want to have a good, happy week."

Flatt, the 2006 U.S. junior silver medalist, missed the 2006-2007 Junior Grand Prix season with a back injury. She made her senior debut at the U.S. Championships last year, scoring a fifth-place finish.

Still, U.S. Figure Skating's international committee decided that she would not make the trip to the 2007 junior worlds, sending Zhang, Nagasu and Ashley Wagner, who swept the podium.

The California native, who trains at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, has high hopes for this year's competition.

"We've really worked on Rachael's presentation and speed, to make her look like a senior lady this season," Tom Zakrajsek, her primary coach, said earlier this year.

"I think her programs really show her off to best advantage; it's not all about her jumps."

Flatt regularly includes a triple-triple in her short and long programs. However, at last year's U.S. Championships, the move was downgraded.

With all this talent, it's no wonder that the ISU age restrictions are creating some discussion in Saint Paul.

To be fair, the long-standing rule is not a knee-jerk decision by the ISU to attempt to prevent young athletes from competing at higher levels. Upon the advice of a team of medical professionals and advisors to the ISU Congress, it was decided the grueling training required for major events may be too taxing on immature bodies.

However, the restrictions provoke dialogue, and certainly at this particular event questions about how U.S. Figure Skating will build a cohesive world team, should youngsters grab top podium positions, have arisen.

"U.S. Figure Skating abides by ISU rules, and an age restriction for senior level skaters is part of those rules," said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. "There are both physical and psychological reasons for it, and while in certain years it may affect more of our skaters, in the big picture, the rule is in place for the right reason.

"We have junior world championships as well as senior world championships, so in almost all cases (except at times in pairs and dance), the skaters have an opportunity to compete at an international level each year. And for U.S. Figure Skating, all our top skaters will be age-eligible, and experienced internationally, by the time of the next year's world championships and the 2010 Olympics -- which are the long-range international goals of the skaters and U.S. Figure Skating."

With Zhang, Nagasu and Flatt all out of the question for worlds, that may leave the door open for Emily Hughes, who was forced to withdraw from these championships with a hip injury. While Hughes cannot clinch a spot on the world team by competing here, based on her past record she could petition U.S. Figure Skating to consider her for the world team.