ELLENTON — Her coaches say Felicia Zhang has an obvious strength in figure skating. She's lyrical. She hears music and makes it her own. She's a natural, offering shades and textures, letting it flow instinctively through her programs.
It's not as easy to regulate the rhythm of her insanely busy life.
She's a part-time psychology student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, driving across the Sunshine Skyway for her classes. Sometimes, she sits by the water and does her homework. But not for long.
She's a sales associate at J. Crew. She folds clothes, assists customers, offers suggestions on what might look good.
Then there's her real job.
She's a U.S. Olympian.
“I can't stop thinking about it,'' said Zhang, 20. “I can't stop smiling.''
Zhang and her pairs partner, Nathan Bartholomay, are headed to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia after taking a silver medal at the U.S. Championships. It was considered an upset, but no one was surprised at Manatee County's Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, their training facility adjacent to the outlet mall where she works.
Between sessions recently, she was back working at J. Crew, trying to act naturally.
Her boss wouldn't have it.
“He was telling people in the store, 'Do you see her? She's going to the Olympics,'” Zhang said. “I've had people come up to me in the store and say, 'Are you the one?' They recognize me.''
She's easy to spot. She's 5-feet tall. She's always smiling.
But people generally don't recognize how hard she has worked.
Back home in Plainsboro, N.J., she initially hated the ice. Accompanying her father to speed-skating sessions, she skated in circles and shivered. At age 7, during a friend's birthday party, she began feeling the love and asked her mother if she could return to the ice when the event had finished.
Soon, she discovered her competitive side. She has been driven ever since.
In 2011, she moved to Ellenton, where she could work with coaches Jim Peterson and Lyndon Johnston, while deciding to work with Bartholomay.
“We're both very emotional, but I think we have learned how to utilize that in a positive way,'' said Bartholomay, 24. “Felicia is one of the few people in this world who knows how to calm me down and put things into perspective. When you have a partner in figure skating, you get to know them very, very well.
“Every day is not perfect. We get frustrated because nothing's right, nothing's perfect and we're both perfectionists. The frustration comes from the fact that we are two human beings who are trying to get one thing done. One of us might be a little off. But we get it back together pretty quickly.''
To save on costs, Zhang, Bartholomay and another skater share an apartment. They have learned how to carve out their personal space after a long day at the rink. If nerves are frayed, they know not to take things personally. They also know tomorrow is another day.
For the most part, though, Bartholomay is Zhang's biggest cheerleader.
“Felicia puts 110 percent into everything, whether it's going to school, folding clothes at J. Crew or skating with me,'' Bartholomay said. “She works really hard and rarely ever complains about being tired.
“She's just a special partner to have. She's so balletic and talented. She has such a talent for hearing music and being able to float to it. It is very special.''
It was the first quality noticed by her Ellenton coaches.
“She could very easily be a dancer on the stage,'' Peterson said. “I feel like our sport is sport and art combined. She exemplifies what I love to see in a dancer. But she has the competitiveness and the ability to see things so analytically. You tell her one thing and she gets it. No drama. She just gets it.''
“I think because she has so much going on with school and work, too, she knows how to manage her time and she knows how to quickly process information and get things done,'' Johnston said. “I have seen talented athletes who don't really have that second part of their life. They are very one-sided. But the second side is what makes them real. And Felicia is real. She's a joy to coach.''
Zhang has an escape if skating ever gets too intense.
At USF, she can blend in nicely.
“Plus, what I'm studying (psychology) is just fascinating to me,'' Zhang said. “It makes for a good balance.''
At J. Crew, she has a supportive group of work friends and a job that keeps her grounded.
When there's spare time, which isn't often, she might take in a movie or go for yogurt with Bartholomay. Off the ice, they rarely talk about skating, choosing to compartmentalize that part of their lives.
But lately, it has been difficult not to think about what's ahead.
“We both have the goal of getting to the Olympics and sometimes it's overwhelming to think that it's actually happening,'' Zhang said. “Once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian, so that is something great.
“We can't wait to compete and show what we can do. In a way, it still doesn't seem real. But we have to be very level-headed about it and not get too caught up because we still have a goal we're trying to accomplish.''
It's fun – and hectic – being Felicia Zhang.
“This is a time of my life I will always remember,'' she said. “When it's all over, I can think back on it. Right now, I've just got to go, go, go.''