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Springs snips: California pearl regains her luster

Fitter, faster, happier Zhang looks to future; Zawadzki searches for confidence

Caroline Zhang's patented "pearl" spin will be on display this week at the World Arena.
Caroline Zhang's patented "pearl" spin will be on display this week at the World Arena. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/09/2012) - Prodigy hits the big time, suffers growing pains, fights her way back to the top: Caroline Zhang's bio is starting to read like a corny Hollywood story, although we don't quite know the ending yet.

"Caroline was a child star, and it all came rather easily and quickly for her," said Peter Oppegard, who coaches Zhang with his wife, Karen Kwan-Oppegard, at the East West Ice Palace in Artesia, Calif.

"I feel she is kind of late at maturing, and I think she just kind of learned as she went. The body adjustments she had to make took time. Somewhere down the line, she started to make good choices, and I think she's making more and more good choices now."

At age 14, Zhang won the 2007 world junior title. The following season, she placed fourth at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and second at the world junior championships to Rachael Flatt. In 2009, she took the U.S. bronze medal and a third medal at junior worlds.

But normal height and weight changes, coaching moves and just the regular business of growing up seemed to slow her ascent. She placed 11th at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Last season, she was 12th.

Then, at the U.S. Championships in San Jose last month, she roared back, landing a triple loop-triple loop in her short and placing fourth, just 0.91 points away from the bronze medal.

"I feel like I took a different approach to training for nationals and it turned out a lot better," Zhang, 18, said after her practice Wednesday. "I tried to attack my programs. Going out to the short program, I knew there was nothing for me to lose. I could just go out there and do the program I knew I could do."

Although she began full-time training under the Oppegards last January, Zhang has skated at East West Ice Palace for years.

"I've always loved skating in Artesia -- I've been taking from Karen for a while, and I've always seen Peter coaching his skaters there -- so the move wasn't a huge change for me," she said. "I'm just more settled. They helped me love my skating again."

In San Jose, Zhang's increased speed and fit appearance led many to believe she had embraced a radically different exercise and diet regime, but that's not the case.

"I've been given that question many times," she said. "A lot of people have commented on it, but really I haven't put as much importance on it as a lot of other people seem to think I have. It was just something that came naturally with better training, and I really didn't pay attention to my weight so much. It was more, build muscle for better jumps."

"She's definitely dropped weight, but she's done it in a healthy way, and she's also worked on her fitness," Oppegard said. "Triple loop-triple loop is a very physical combination that not many people can do. So she's gone up to the gym, and it's paying off for her now."

Zhang, who plans to include the triple-triple in her short, hopes to get full credit for the difficult maneuver here. The technical panel judged it under-rotated in San Jose, which cost her a few points.

"At home, it was solid every time," Oppegard said. "[In San Jose], she took a little speed and energy off of it to make sure she was accurate on her take-off, but she lost some of her power. When she got home, she worked on keeping the snap on the second jump. I think it's working for her here."

Zhang has also been working on the triple flip-triple toe in practice here, and she may try it in her free skate.

"She's doing it in the warmup, so for Caroline it depends on how confident she's feeling, if she wants to put that in with the other jumps," Oppegard said.

The skater, renowned for her signature "pearl" layback to Biellmann combination spin, also hopes to improve on spin levels and grades of execution (GOE). A Level 1 flying sit spin likely cost her bronze in San Jose.

"A lot of what we worked on when we got home was the whole package," Oppegard said. "She's one of the best spinners in the event. It's no secret that in the past she's kind of used those spins to rest, and so she's learned from nationals -- having been just fractionally behind in fourth place -- how important doing the spins she can do is, and she's in shape to do them."

Whatever happens here, Zhang thinks her efforts over the past 12 months have put her on track for an even bigger comeback.

"I'm definitely happy with where my training is going right now," she said. "I hope to just take the momentum from this and build into next season. I would like to do better here than I did at nationals. I wasn't expecting an assignment, and to come here is just awesome."

Zawadzki searches for confidence to match jumps

Agnes Zawadzki, who trains in Colorado Springs under Christy Krall with visits and long-distance help from David Santee, has mixed feelings about her performance in San Jose, which included a first-place short, seventh-place free and the U.S. bronze medal.

"It's bittersweet," the 17-year-old said. "I'm really happy with my short, and I'm happy with my result because it's better than last year.

"But after being in first, it's just -- I could have had it. I just need to be confident in myself and believe in myself. I think sometimes I start doubting myself instead of attacking everything. I've been working on that, and I think it's paying off."

Watching Zawadzki practice her soaring jumps, including a triple toe-triple toe and triple Lutz, you wouldn't think confidence would be a problem.

It's not that simple.

"The mind plays funny games on you, I don't even know why," she said. "Practices always go really well. [In] competition, you have that extra pressure."

Zawadzki, a senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School, plans to continue training with Krall and Santee next season, and is contemplating a new short program.

"I think I want to keep my long, because I love the music [Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'] so much," she said. "But I feel like my short [to a medley including 'Harlem Nocturne'] has had a really good run, so I think I might change that."