It’s always fun to play a game of “Spot the Future Champion” as the Junior Grand Prix season goes along. Many people remember the early days of Michelle Kwan. More recently, there were the junior battles between Mao Asada and Caroline Zhang. This past Nationals, we got an even younger look at the future in Utah’s Nathan Chen.
But it was another skater traveling through the junior ranks that caught the attention of US Ladies skating’s most dedicated fans — Christina Gao.
Now, Gao isn’t exactly new on the international scene. She had a strong run on the Junior Grand Prix Circuit last year, finishing third in both events (Turkey and Poland) as well as the Final.
A fifth-place finish in her Senior debut at Nationals didn’t go unnoticed, either.
By the time her first Junior Grand Prix event in Austria came around this season, the Twitterverse was buzzing with interest in Brian Orser’s protégé. And with two strong programs, she once again found herself on the podium — this time, with the silver.
“I’m really happy with both my programs that I did in Austria,” Gao said as she thought back about the event. “I put a pretty high score up there — 167 — so I’m really proud of how I did at Austria.”
She then jetted off to Germany for her second event, hoping for one more move up the medal stand.
But, as goes this unpredictable sport, Gao hit a few speed bumps on her way to another 2nd place finish qualifying for the Final.
“My lace broke before my short and my hook broke there also,” Gao recalled. “But I think I skated well there, too. And I’m really glad I made the Final again, especially because it was in China.”
And off to China it was, where she had the chance to visit with family she hadn’t seen in 5+ years.
But international travel is a learning process in and of itself, especially as an elite athlete who has to be prepared to compete, no matter the effects of jet lag.
“I think every person is different on how they deal with traveling…” Gao said. “This past year was definitely a learning experience for what works for me and what I need to do, [should] that be go a day earlier or something so I can get more used to the ice, more used to the time zone.”
Still, it’s not all bad, getting to do what you love, see the world, and represent the USA!
“I love going to all these different places, just because I think it’s so cool to see all the different cultures,” she said. “Especially, I was excited to go to China. I really wanted to make the Final because I hadn’t been to China since I was two and a lot of my family is there.”
After some troubles in the short program, Christina had a little extra support in the long — her grandpa, aunt and cousin were in the stands cheering her on.
Maybe it worked.
“I was happy because my long program was better than my short!”
With another successful JGP season in the books, Christina and her team turned their sights to Nationals, where, once again, she’d skate as a senior.
Of course, there’s always a challenge in adapting a junior free skate (3:30 +/- 10 seconds) to the senior length (4:00 +/- 10 seconds). But perhaps the bigger challenge is living up to the added expectations and inspiration.
Training in the Orser camp, Christina watched as Yu-Na Kim prepared for her Olympic season, and that inspiration didn’t go unused by the younger Olympic hopeful.
“It was funny, because you would think that [she would be] so nervous, but she didn’t really look nervous,” Gao said. “But seeing how she trained before big competitions like the Olympics and Worlds helps me train for my competitions.”
From one skating superstar to another, Gao also draws inspiration from Kim’s own role model — Michelle Kwan.
“Obviously, I always look up to Michelle Kwan, just because she has a magical affect on people that [they] can’t really explain,” she said of the 9-time national champion. “Hopefully I can have that some day!”
If the reaction to her own magical short program at Nationals was any indication, she’s well on her way!
Gao once again found herself in the final flight of ladies as they took the ice for the long program in Greensboro. And despite some late-season fatigue, she once again finished fifth overall, landing a spot on the Junior World team.
“I just wanted to do my best, obviously,” she said, adding, “I think that’s what everybody says!”
“I wanted to skate my best and see what happened. I’m really glad I made the junior world team again.”
As with any top competitor, though, Gao already knows what needs to be improved based on the competition in Greensboro. Number one on the list is an improvement in stamina. After all, competing as a senior next season will require even greater physical strength — especially to compete with the world’s best.
“Especially towards the end of the season, I was getting really tired at the end of my programs, not being able to not only do my jumps, but also present the program the way I know how to,” Gao said.
And with her other goal in mind — truly looking like a senior lady — that presentation will be essential.
Many skating fans oohed and aahed over a young Patrick Chan not too many years ago. And it wasn’t only skating fans that were dazzled by his road to the World title this season.
Christina, too, found herself hoping for the time she’ll have that moment.
“He was really inspiring just because he completely dominated,” she said. And with an added sense of determination, she continued, “I want to be like that. Well, maybe not next season, but hopefully some time in the future I can be just as dominant as him.”
So. How are your future-champion spotting skills? Triple-Triple in hand, Christina is certainly on my list!