Fig­ure skater on Cloud 9

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON in New York kdaw­son@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Be­fore 12-year-old Iris Zhao took first place in the US Fig­ure Skat­ing Cham­pi­onships’ ju­ve­nile di­vi­sion last week, her coach Kris­ten Weir gave her some home­work: Watch ev­ery Youtube clip of Michelle Kwan you can find, Weir told Zhao, not­ing the nine-time world cham­pion’s poise, gutsi­ness and emo­tion.

Zhao went on to score 56.36, tak­ing first place in the ju­ve­nile free skate com­pe­ti­tion with a pro­gram ac­com­pa­nied by the Chi­nese song “But­ter­fly Lovers”, a piece cho­sen be­cause the coaches felt it re­minded them of her — light, airy and Chi­nese, Zhao told China Daily.

“I re­ally didn’t ex­pect to win,” she said. “I’m on Cloud Nine.”

Her unas­sum­ing at­ti­tude is typ­i­cal Iris, Weir said. At the Colo­nial Fig­ure Skat­ing Club in Boxbor­ough, MA, where Zhao has trained since she was five years old, ev­ery­one calls her “The Mayor,” Weir said. “Iris takes care of ev­ery­one, wel­com­ing new mem­bers and treat­ing ev­ery­one with kind­ness and gen­tle­ness,” she said. “The sup­port and ex­cite­ment the com­mu­nity has shown — and the pride in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity at her vic­tory — has been so spe­cial and in­spir­ing, be­cause she de­serves it.”

Iris’ par­ents, Mei Liu and Rich Zhao, moved to Bos­ton 20 years ago to study physics and com­puter sci­ence af­ter meet­ing at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing, Liu told China Daily. Liu is from Chengdu, and her hus­band hails from Hu­nan prov­ince; the fam­ily now lives in Ac­ton, MA. Their Chi­nese her­itage has re­mained im­por­tant, and un­til her train­ing ramped up, Zhao had stud­ied Man­darin at a lo­cal Chi­nese school.

Even in a field in which Asian Amer­i­can fig­ure skaters like Kwan and Kristie Ya­m­aguchi have flour­ished, race can some­times still be an is­sue, as ev­i­denced by the con­tro­versy around the re­cent an­nounce­ment that Mi­rai Na­gasu will not join the Olympic Team in 2016, de­spite plac­ing above the com­mit­tee’s choice, Ash­ley Wag­ner, in the US Na­tional Cham­pi­onships.

Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Jour­nal crit­i­cized the com­mit­tee’s choice as a po­ten­tially un­con­scious fa­vor­ing of the blonde, all-Amer­i­can Wag­ner for her “golden girl” at­tributes.

But Zhao be­lieves the com­mit­tee made a choice based on merit and con­sis­tent per­for­mance over the last four years, rather than eth­nic­ity.

We i r echoed t ho s e thoughts, not­ing Wag­ner’s strong per­for­mances in pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tions.

“I don’t think the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion re­ally un­der­stands the cri­te­ria that go into mak­ing that kind of choice, and al­though I did pass ini­tial judg­ment, I try to re­mind my­self that in watch­ing the news we shouldn’t jump to con­clu­sions,” Weir said. “Some of our best fig­ure skaters have been Asian Amer­i­can, and I know that at our rink for ex­am­ple, there’s a huge Asian com­mu­nity. And with Iris, I can say that race is def­i­nitely not an is­sue.”

Zhao’s mother, Liu, also noted that her com­peti­tors com­pleted moves that were tech­ni­cally more dif­fi­cult. Zhao’s high score was a re­sult of the beauty of her pro­gram, she said.

“I re­ally be­lieve that Iris has an in­ter­nal strength that com­bines with her tech­ni­cal abil­ity when she re­laxes and puts her heart into the pro­gram,” she said. “With moves and jumps, peo­ple can prac­tice and get there, but Iris has a way of ex­press­ing beauty that’s just in her na­ture. It’s a spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tic. I think that’s why she won.”

The win also makes Zhao’s Olympic dreams more pos­si­ble, Liu said. But first, the fam­ily will have to man­age the fi­nan­cial strain of her train­ing, which will in­crease from her cur­rent two hours a day in the com­ing years, Liu said. A ma­jor dis­ad­van­tage for Amer­i­can ath­letes is the lack of fi­nan­cial sup­port that Chi­nese ath­letes en­joy from a young age af­ter their tal­ent is rec­og­nized by the state, she noted.

But the fam­ily’s de­ter­mined to make it work, Liu said. For Zhao, the fu­ture still seems a way off, she said. She’s still rid­ing the ex­cite­ment off her re­cent win.

“I try not to worry too much about what’s ahead, but it would be so cool to make the Olympic team,” she said.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Fig­ure skat­ing champ Iris Zhao with well-wish­ers af­ter her win.

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