Figure skater on Cloud 9
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.
Figure skating champ Iris Zhao with well-wishers after her win.