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Zhao delivers first-class program, gold is her due

International senior competition inspires juniors to up their game

Selena Zhao received choreography for her <i>Il Postino</i> free skate from Rohene Ward.
Selena Zhao received choreography for her Il Postino free skate from Rohene Ward. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/16/2012) - A solid triple flip and triple Lutz helped Selena Zhao edge Polina Edmunds in the free skate and win the junior ladies gold at the 2012 U.S. Challenge Skate in Salt Lake City.

Zhao, who trains in the Chicago area under Kori Ade, landed four clean triples, including Lutz and Salchow combinations in her free skate to violinist Itzhak Perlman's rendition of selections from the Il Postino: The Postman soundtrack.

Two other triples were judged under-rotated by the technical panel, but the 14-year-old still earned 83.93 points to win the free skate and take the title with 128.80.

"The whole week I've been here, my jumps have felt really solid, so I was happy I was able to put it out there," Zhao said. "It was definitely good, but it's still September and the qualifying competitions haven't started. There's always so much room to improve."

Ade collaborated on the choreography of the free skate with Rohene Ward, the former U.S. competitor who also works with reigning world junior bronze medalist Jason Brown.

"Rohene is on tour quite a bit, so I lay out programs, and when he comes home, he fills in all the detail with his brilliance, and he really is brilliant," said Ade, who has been coaching Zhao for a little over six months.

"One of our strategies for Selena this year was to really hit both ends of the spectrum (artistry and technique), and I think it's been fun for her to do that and show some versatility in her skating."

Zhao, seventh in novice at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, was a bit star struck watching the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, North America's first-ever senior "B" competition, take place in conjunction with her event.

"I listened to the judges being introduced by country, and I that was so cool," she said. "Sitting in the stands with my USA gear with all the seniors is so much fun. I really appreciate this competition because we have a chance early in the season to put our stuff out there and see how it stacks up."

Edmunds had an inspired skate to a delicate piano version of Nino Rota's Romeo and Juliet, mixed with the standard "Once Upon a Time," but her opening triple-triples -- a triple Lutz-triple toe and triple flip-triple toe -- included under-rotated jumps, and a triple loop was downgraded. She earned 80.14 for her free and 127.68 overall.

"I was really happy with my triple-triples because I landed them both," Edmunds, 14, said. "I've been working on them all season, and they felt really good. Those are the highlights of my program.

"This was a great opportunity for me to skate and show everybody the elements I've been working on. Of course, I wish I got a higher score -- I was kind of surprised by my score -- but I think I did pretty well, and I showed what I can do."

Edmunds, who trains under David Glynn in San Jose, has her programs choreographed by 1992 Olympic ice dance champion Marina Klimova. Anthony Ponomarenko, the son of Klimova and husband (and ice dance partner) Sergei Ponomarenko, competed in the novice ice dance event here, winning gold with partner Sarah Feng.

"Marina Klimova did both my short and free, and she did an amazing job," Edmunds said. "They're so wonderful to skate. It's fun to do my programs because my choreography is so amazing."

Colorado Springs-based skater Avery Kurtz took bronze with a solid skate to music from The Lord of the Rings, choreographed by Catarina Lindgren. It featured a fine triple loop combination as well as several other solid triples, including a flip. She earned 115.65 points.

"It was good for now. I would really like to keep improving," Kurtz said. "I was really happy with the point total today, bringing me up from [fourth place in] the short. Today the loop was strong, and I was happy with it. I felt like my energy was good."

Kurtz designed her program's green chiffon dress, inspired by a character in The Lord of the Rings.

"I'm supposed to be the elven princess, so I designed the dress myself," she said. "Lord of the Rings is my favorite movie, so I was really glad."

"One of Avery's goals today was to attack the program for the whole 3 minutes, 40 seconds, and I felt she did that," Kurtz's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said. "This was probably her best long of the season from that perspective."

New York's Olivia Serafini took fourth place with a free skate that included a clean triple flip.

"There were little mistakes, but I was happy I stayed on my feet and fought for everything I did," she said. "My last two spins I was happy with; my first one, I didn't hold my sit long enough."

Serafini's coach, Steven Rice, is grateful the U.S. Challenge Skate gave his skater exposure to senior international competitors.

"It's a great experience for all these kids to see the older girls practice and how they conduct themselves during an international competition," Rice said. "Hopefully, they will be assigned a Junior Grand Prix at some point, and to see how it all works beforehand has been wonderful."

Zakrajsek likened the event to the North American Challenge Skate competitions held several years ago for up-and-coming novice skaters.

"I think the U.S. Challenge Skate is going to be a great bridge for all of these kids, from the national team to the international team," he said. "Many of my athletes -- Rachael [Flatt], Brandon [Mroz], Jeremy [Abbott], Ryan [Bradley] -- all came through that experience, and I believe that is an important developmental step. It makes your first international assignment that much easier."