The clock in her room at the Hyatt Hotel read 3 a.m. Zhang stared blankly at the screen of her laptop computer. She was too tired to do any more homework, too wired on chocolate milk to sleep. She could, however, still dream.
With the 2010 Olympic Games one year and one week away, the Brea 15-year-old had come to the Games' host city determined to show she could hold her own against the world's top figure skaters. A little more than five hours earlier she had done just that, placing fourth at the Four Continents against an Olympic- and world championships-caliber field, delivering a breakthrough performance the sport and U.S. figure skating, in particular, had been waiting for, gliding through the program's closing moments with a beaming smile that just might steal America's heart in the coming year.
"I sort of thought I knew what I was going to see tonight, but she brought something else to the table," said four-time world champion Kurt Browning, now a television analyst. "I'm very impressed."
In four minutes on the same ice that will crown next year's Olympic champion, Zhang emerged from a pack of U.S. teenage wannabes as a legitimate Olympic medal contender, America's next ice princess.
"Caroline's the future of U.S. skating," said Irvine's Naomi Nari Nam, the 1999 U.S. runner-up. "Really the future of world skating."
Zhang's newfound status was confirmed when after more than an hour – and several chocolate milks – she finally emerged from drug testing at Four Continents to find a crowd of fans still waiting on a cold, wet British Columbia night to get her autograph.