Ice Network

Zhang gains strength through overcoming adversity

Former prodigy returns to relevance after undergoing months of rehab
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Caroline Zhang battled back from injury to put out career-best performances at the 2017 U.S. Championships in Kansas City. -Jay Adeff

Countless competitors at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships wrote #GetUpDay stories with grit and determination.

Nathan Chen made history, landing five quadruple jumps in his free skate just one year after hip surgery took him off the ice for more than five months. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, less than two years removed from her tearing multiple ligaments in her right knee, an injury that took the pair out of competition for the entire 2015-16 season, won their first U.S. title. Karen Chen overcame pain and injuries caused by persistent boot problems to deliver two inspiring performances and win the ladies title.

Others didn't win titles but beat tough odds to achieve personal goals. Caroline Zhang's fifth-place showing was her best at a U.S. championships since 2012, and 12 spots higher than she finished in her last trip to the event, in 2015. After undergoing major hip surgery and months of rehab, she didn't just get up -- she got better.

"It's all coming from a different place now, a place inside of her that's very strong," said Peter Oppegard, who coaches Zhang in Artesia, California. "She really appreciates her ice time and is very protective of it. She wants to be a better skater when she gets off the ice than when she got on. She is very disciplined, very motivated."

A decade ago, Zhang was the darling of U.S. figure skating. With her signature "Pearl" spin -- a variation on a side layback that required a contortionist's skill -- she dominated the Junior Grand Prix Series in 2006 and won the 2007 world junior title. The next few seasons, she had success on the Grand Prix circuit and won two more world junior medals.

By 2010, her results were flagging. Disappointing finishes at several U.S. championships were offset by bronze medals at the 2010 and 2012 Four Continents Championships. By the time she placed 19th in the U.S. in 2014 and 17th the following year, Zhang was skating in excruciating pain.

"My hip hurt, and it started impacting my everyday life," she said. "I couldn't do cardio leading into 2014. I couldn't do off-ice training at all."

In March 2015, Zhang underwent a periacetabular ostotomy to correct congenital hip dysplasia. Told she would be off the ice for at least 12 months, she set a goal to compete in Kansas City.

"[The operation] involved breaking my pelvis and screwing it back together, leaving gaps to grow new bone," she said. "It was definitely hard for me, but it made me appreciate everything I had more and made me want to keep skating."

Zhang had grueling physical therapy, three hours a day. She returned to the ice last spring, screws still in pace. Removing them meant another six months away from the ice, a layoff her timetable wouldn't permit. Even today, time and money are at a premium.

"Scheduling is really hard," she said. "On Monday, I go to the rink (in Artesia) for the 6:30 a.m. (session) and teach on it, and then I skate the 7:15 a.m. session. I teach at 8 a.m., skate at 9 a.m., teach at 9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., and skate at 11:30 a.m. And then I go to the rink at Torrance and teach from 2 p.m. until 6:40 p.m."

She doesn't do all of her teaching alone. Often, she co-coaches with Grant Hochstein, who placed fourth in Kansas City. The two were engaged last April, during a romantic picnic in New York's Central Park.

Ironically, Zhang's busy life has made skating all the more important.

"It actually wasn't as much of a priority back then as it is now for me, because I am coaching, I'm skating, I'm in school (at Cerritos College), and I'm getting married," Zhang said. "I have to make the time in my day, earn the money to afford to skate and train."

Zhang won her regional championships early last fall and earned a trip to the U.S. championships by placing second at the highly competitive Pacific Coast Sectional Championships. Still, her clean performances in Kansas City -- which featured triple loop-triple loop combinations -- took many by surprise.

That includes Zhang herself.

"I expected [jumping] to be harder, since I am coming back with a more grown-up figure; I'm not the child I was," Zhang said. "But it was easier to get the lift I wanted for triple-triples."

Oppegard, who first coached Zhang in 2011, attributes her resurgence to her determination and work ethic.

"That was her third clean long program in a row," he said after the free skate in Kansas City. "She just really owns what she does now, good, bad or indifferent. She earns it. I know she wants a triple flip-triple toe combination, she wants to work on her spins more. She can do anything she wants. I think she's interested in a spring competition, to see what she can do (internationally)."

Zhang got her wish: She will compete at Challenge Cup, held in The Hague, Netherlands, Feb. 23-26. It's her first international event since 2013 Skate America and a chance to earn qualifying technical element scores for upcoming ISU championship events, including the world championships and Four Continents.

"It's great just being back out there," Zhang said. "It's something I've worked for this whole year. I completed the goals I set to come back."