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Rejuvenated Gao 'honored' to be with sport's elite

Harvard freshman to square off against Wagner, Asada in Sochi

Christina Gao has found herself in the unlikeliest of places: the Grand Prix Final.
Christina Gao has found herself in the unlikeliest of places: the Grand Prix Final. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(12/04/2012) - For someone who wasn't sure she wanted to compete this season, Christina Gao is having a pretty good fall.

The 18-year-old's silver medal, behind Ashley Wagner, at Skate America, coupled with her fourth-place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard, qualified the Harvard freshman as first alternate for the Grand Prix Final, to be held this week in Sochi, Russia.

When Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia withdrew after a fall in practice resulted in a mild concussion, Gao and coaches Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson got the call.

"Last Wednesday afternoon, [U.S. Figure Skating] told me to send my passport," she said. "There was discussion about a skater pulling out, which meant I would have to go, so we had a hunch. On Thursday, they said it was looking more likely, and on Friday, they said it was official."

Nothing seemed less likely this spring. After training in Toronto under Brian Orser for several seasons, Gao had returned home to Cincinnati, uncertain about her skating future. Harvard and Boston beckoned, while her competitive results had stalled.

"After junior worlds (where she placed seventh), I had a kind of tough couple of months because I was deciding between school and skating," she said earlier this year. "I came fifth at nationals three years in a row and kind of lost my motivation."

That changed after a June trip to Boston to visit Harvard and a week's training with Mitchell and Johansson at the Skating Club of Boston (SCB). Another trip to SCB, to re-work her free skate to Astor Piazzola's "Libertango," followed.

By summer's end, she was training at the facility for keeps.

"I love training in Boston so much," Gao said. "When I'm at the rink, I can forget about school; when I'm at school, I forget about the rink."

Gao embraces this unexpected opportunity to compete at the Olympic venue, some 14 months ahead of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

"I'm going to follow my schedule," she said. "I've worked hard this season, and my competitions reflect what I've been doing in training. Besides my short in Paris (at Trophee Bompard), which was a little bit disappointing, my other [competitive] programs have gone pretty much the way I've been training.

"This is one extra competition before nationals, which is good. I don't like to focus on who I will be competing against, but I am honored to be at the final with the best in the world. I look up to all of them."

Although Gao has been including a triple toe-triple toe combination in her short program, choreographed by Mitchell to Kostia's "Close Without Touching," she may add an even more challenging combination, triple flip-triple toe, to her "Libertango" free in Sochi. In prior seasons, she has hit the triple flip-triple toe with relative ease.

"I would like to do it, but we will see," she said. "I practiced it in Paris, and before Paris, too. I would like to get it in my long again.

"We've also been working on my overall skating -- my posture and presentation -- to try to get higher PCS (program components scores), and my spin levels. I want to get the levels of the spins consistently, and then I'll work on [improving] the quality."

Johansson will accompany Gao to Sochi, while Mitchell will remain in Boston training Ross Miner, Harrison Choate and Yasmin Siraj, among others.

Gao was thrilled to see Miner hit a quadruple Salchow and win bronze in a tough field at the NHK Trophy.

"Ross is such a great training partner; he pushes me everyday," she said. "I've seen him do even better than he did at NHK. I'm so proud of him."

On the academic front, it's so far, so good.

"I'm lucky my professors and teaching fellows have been very supportive of my skating," she said. "If I have to travel, I'm turning in my work when I can -- sometimes before I leave, sometimes when I come back.

"I'm not missing any finals, which is good. Finals start December 14th, and next week is reading week, which is a good time to study, so I have to make sure I study [in Sochi]."

Wagner gained her invitation by winning gold at both Skate America and Trophée Bompard.

"Going into the Grand Prix Final with two wins and the highest point total of the season is really exciting for me," the U.S. champion told reporters in a teleconference last week. "I think it's a good spot to be in."

As the season goes on, Wagner hopes to add more difficult combinations to her programs.

"I'm looking at [the Grand Prix Final] as an opportunity to get out on the ice one more time before nationals," she said. "We'll see when I get there, but I would love to throw out the [double] Axel-triple toe [in my free skate]. It's all about how I'm feeling. We'll see at the competition."

In the days leading up to her departure for Sochi, Wagner and coach John Nicks have also paid extra attention to her spins.

"I gave away [spins] points in the last couple of competitions," she said. "That's not so great, but in a way, it's good news because that means there is still more room to max out my programs. I'm trying to keep on going with the whole performance aspect. I want to make the programs more intricate and complicated as I get more familiar with them."

Japan's Mao Asada also won her two Grand Prix events to qualify. Last season, the two-time world champion was forced to withdraw from the final because of the untimely death of her mother.

World bronze medalist Akiko Suzuki, also of Japan, qualified with a pair of silver medals, at Skate Canada and NHK. A win at Rostelecom Cup, plus a bronze medal at the Cup of China, made Kiira Korpi the first Finnish lady to qualify for the final. The final qualifier, Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, placed fourth at Skate Canada and won silver at Trophee Bompard.