Gao performing in 2 world-class worlds

U.S. figure skater juggling books at Harvard with an eye on 2013 worlds and 2014 Olympics

Christina Gao was doing an interview during her daily, 2-mile afternoon trek from Harvard University to the Skating Club of Boston.

"Wait," Gao said, "something noisy is going by."

Waiting is the one thing Gao has no time for, not if she wants to be a full-time elite figure skater and a full-time freshman at one of the world's elite universities. So there could be no slowing in her pace during a brief pause in the conversation as she tries to keep up with a schedule that suddenly got a lot more complicated last week.

Gao unexpectedly found herself making a 26-hour trek Monday and Tuesday to Sochi, Russia, where she will compete in the Grand Prix Final beginning Friday. Three days after returning, she will begin her first-semester final exams in economics, math, advanced Chinese for Heritage Students and a biology seminar called "What Is Life?"

"I have been a little overwhelmed the past few days," she said.

Gao, 18, learned last Wednesday she had moved from first alternate to Grand Prix finalist because one of the six qualifiers, Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia, withdrew with an injury.

Finishing seventh in the season standings had been even more unexpected because Gao was ready to quit skating and be a full-time student after her career lurched between stagnation and deflation last season.

She had finished fifth at the U.S. Championships for the third straight year. Dropped from fourth to seventh at the World Junior Championships. Wound up dead last in a Grand Prix event.

"Maybe," she thought, "it was time to give it up and move on."

Last March, Gao packed up and left Toronto after training there under Brian Orser for four years and going through high school by correspondence courses. She returned to her Cincinnati home and barely looked at her skates the next couple of months. She asked her parents for advice about continuing to skate, and they left it up to her.

"I wanted them to tell me what to do," she said.

Gao called the Boston-based coaching team of Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson in late May and visited them in June. They told her she had to be all in if they were to coach her, that she couldn't think of skating competitions as something to do on a whim.

Her training the rest of the summer was erratic, neither frequent nor intense. Gao was more interested in her internship shadowing a gastroenterologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

She asked Stanford sophomore Rachael Flatt, a 2010 Olympian, and recent Harvard graduate Emily Hughes, a 2006 Olympian, for advice on whether trying to have the best of both worlds would leave her without the best of either. They outlined the inherent difficulties.

"They said you had to try it and see what works for you," Gao said. "I didn't want to live with the fact I had never tried doing both. If it doesn't work out, at least I can say I tried."

So she embarked on a Monday-through-Friday routine of skating from 8 to 11 a.m., going to class from noon until 3 p.m. (5 p.m. on Thursdays), then returning to the rink for off-ice training. Saturdays and Sundays are for homework.

"I taught Emily when she was at Harvard and Karen Kwan when she was at Boston University, so I know how hard it is to do both," Mitchell said. "That's why I am impressed with how Christina has been able to keep it together thus far."

Her grades are solid. And her skating has been better than ever — second at Skate America and fourth at the Bompard Trophy in Paris this fall, her best finishes in senior-level national or international events.

Gao's understated, lighter-than-air performances drew raves from NBC commentators Sandra Bezic and Scott Hamilton at Skate America. In four Grand Prix programs, she made just one major mistake and received only two other small negative grades on 38 elements performed.

Forced to be less preoccupied with skating, Gao has gone from also-ran to a contender for the 2013 world team and 2014 Olympic team. That isn't as counterintuitive as it seems.

"I have a better attitude on the ice," she said. "I only have a certain amount of time to skate, and I can't waste any of it being mad at mistakes.

"I fell in love with skating all over again. And I love studying too. People say it's hard doing both, but when you do something you love, it's not really work."

Her coaches insist on full commitment at the rink and push her out the door if she risks being late for class.

"When I'm at the rink, I don't have to worry about school stuff, and when I'm in class, I don't have to worry about skating," she said. "I've found a really good balance."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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