Yes, Selena Zhao has moxie. Over the summer, still only 16, she made a bold move, changing everything about her life, most notably her flag.
Born in the U.S.A., where she first took her tottering skating strokes, Zhao made a clean sweep of all her past steps, and decided to skate for Canada.
She’ll compete in her second ISU Junior Grand Prix event for Canada next week in Dresden, Germany. Her first was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she finished tenth, but the memory will be forever engrained.
“I was honoured,” she said from her training ground in Colorado Springs. “The team was so supportive, it really made me feel like I was part of something bigger. It really motivated me to skate my hardest and make the team and the nation proud.”
Her initiation into the fold wasn’t so easy. She got her first taste of travel woes on the way to Ljubljana, when she couldn’t even get out of the Colorado Springs airport. She was to have travelled to her destination through Chicago, and Brussels, Belgium. Stuck in the home airport for nine hours, because of severe thunderstorms in Chicago, Zhao missed all of her connections, and had to start again the next day. Her route became even more complicated: Denver, Washington, D.C., Vienna and Ljubljana.
She arrived an hour before her first practice, enormously jetlagged after managing only an hour of sleep on the plane. “It actually turned out to be a pretty good practice,” she said. “I’m keeping that in my bag of experiences that I can draw on.”
(Here in the value of Junior Grand Prix events.)
Zhao is a nice little addition to the Skate Canada fold, particularly because she’s already adept at doing triples. She falls in Canada’s trend of female skaters: “We have that group of 17 down to 12 that are really developed in a lot of ways,” said Michael Slipchuk, High Performance Director for Skate Canada.
“She does all the triples,” he said. “She does do triple-triple combo. That’s what the junior ladies are doing right now.” Also, there’s an ease with her coming from Christy Krall’s stable in Colorado; Krall has worked with a number of Canadian skaters, including Patrick Chan, Amélie Lacoste and now Liam Firus. “She knows how our system works,” Slipchuk said.
Zhao’s parents were both born in Beijing, but they emigrated together to Canada, where her father attended school in Vancouver and even spent some time in Ottawa, where Zhao’s older brother, Davis, was born. She has another brother, also born in Canada.
Father Zhao eventually got a job in Seattle, where Selena was born. Selena has recently become a dual citizen, but because she never competed internationally for the United States, she has not had to seek a release. Competing for Canada had always been an option in the back of her mind, she said. “Since my whole family is Canadian, it was a very natural position for me to be in, representing Canada.”
Zhao was a precocious skater, once she decided it was what she loved, at age 10. She landed her first triple right when she turned 12, while doing the others in harness. That first triple “was really fun,” she said. She mastered the last of her triples, the Lutz a year later.
And Zhao is an anomaly. Did growth spurts ever throw her jumps astray? Not really. Zhao was mastering these jumps WHILE she was growing, she said. “I’ve seen it happen,” she said. “But not very often.”
But the impetus to change came from hard times. When she first came to Krall at age 14 ½, Zhao was able to do very athletic things. “She was what I would call an overachiever,” Krall said. “She was throwing herself in a lot of wrong directions. That eventually caught up to her and her competitiveness. She is a massive jumper and when you take that mass off the ice, it’s very hard for you to get into your positions [rotating] fast enough.”
Krall worked on technique, but it all takes time to change old habits. Last year, Zhao might do a great short and a fumbly long or vice versa because “her technique was not where it needed to be,” Krall said. It cost her dearly. Zhao didn’t even qualify for the U.S. championships. “It was a crying shame,” Krall said.
After that disappointment, and a heartfelt conversation with Krall, Zhao committed to changing her technique. It was a monumental mind change. They spent the entire spring working on fixing her technical skills. And it’s working. Through it all, Zhao felt she needed a change of pace in her life to mentally turn a page.
“It was all about change,” Krall said. “I’m going to change my technique. I’m going to change where I’m going. I’m going to change my view of myself….She felt stuck… The whole family is excited to be back in the fold of Canada.”
While training with Krall in Colorado Springs, Zhao met Amélie Lacoste, who had come to change her career too, and try to give it a kickstart in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Zhao shared a locker room with her and the two became friends.
“It was very inspiring to watch her train – she and Liam [Firus] together,” Zhao said. “She worked very hard at the rink. What I really liked about her was that she wasn’t too good for anyone. She talked to all of us. When any of us needed picking up, she was always there.”
When Zhao talked to Lacoste about skating for Canada, Lacoste was very excited and “was all for it,” Zhao said.
Zhao also met Montreal coach Annie Barabé, who brought some students to Colorado Springs to work with Krall. “She was really nice and I worked with her a little,” Zhao said. Next thing you know, Zhao was working at Barabé’s training centre in Contrecoeur, competing at Quebec summer championships and striking up a relationship with her. She loved the training atmosphere in Contrecoeur.
Zhao’s new adventure is a new, exciting one. Krall said Zhao just decided to change to see if she had it in her to excel. “It was putting herself out there to make lots of risky moves,” Krall said. “And the result is feeling very comfortable.”