Karen Zhou
Undergraduate Karen Zhou earns high marks in figure skating competitions and in school. Elegant on the ice, she could be on her way to Olympic glory. Steve Zylius / UCI

There’s one thing Karen Zhou doesn’t do well: sit still.

The UC Irvine undergraduate likes to be in constant motion. “I hate not having anything to do. It feels like I’m wasting my time,” she says. “If I didn’t have to sleep, I wouldn’t.”

She’s especially happy when she’s in motion on the ice. Even while earning impressive grades at UCI, Zhou has become a powerful force in figure skating, competing at the senior level with her eye on the 2014 Olympics. In August, she won first place in the senior ladies event at the 2010 U.S. Collegiate Figure Skating Championships in East Lansing, Mich.

“Karen exhibits tremendous energy in balancing both a fine academic record and her world-class skating. She carries an impressive course load for someone who practices many, many hours in the rink,” says Sharon Salinger, dean of undergraduate education. “She also takes great pride in representing UCI at competitive events.”

At 5 feet 2 inches and just 95 pounds, Zhou looks too young to be an 18-year-old college junior. (She skipped eighth grade.)

“Sometimes, when I’m on campus, I try not to mention that I skate,” she says. “I like skating and school to be separate worlds. That helps me achieve balance. If I’m having a bad day skating, I can always escape to school. And if I’m having a bad day at school, I take my mind off it at the rink.”

Most who skate at her level are educated by private tutors, but Zhou’s father would have none of that.

“When I was little, he told me that if I didn’t keep up my grades, I wouldn’t skate anymore,” she recalls.

Zhou attended Rim of the World High School in Lake Arrowhead so she could practice at the nearby Ice Castle International Training Center, home to Michelle Kwan and other champions.

(Her sister, Vicky Zhou ’07, is another high achiever, earning bachelor’s degrees in dance and biology from UCI along with numerous academic honors. She’s now a graduate student at Harvard University and competes in ballroom dancing.)

Zhou has maintained a 3.945 grade point average even while taking an extra course in winter and spring to graduate with her class. “I like to push myself,” she says.

Her course load is lighter in fall — she’s currently taking three classes — because it’s the busy season for international skating events.

A business administration major, Zhou is considering a double major in literary journalism and occasionally writes for New University, UCI’s student newspaper. She credits Denise Patrick, director of undergraduate programs at The Paul Merage School of Business, and academic counselor Joyce Kim with helping her score high marks off the ice.

“I want to get an M.B.A. and use my skating background in business,” she says. “In skating and business, the mind-set is the same: They’re both competitive. You have to be strong, and there are always setbacks. And everything’s based on performance. There are a lot of parallels.”

Zhou skates for three or four hours a day, practicing at five rinks in Southern California. “I have to work around the rinks’ hockey schedules to skate during the freestyle sessions,” she notes.

She does her homework while her mother drives her to the rinks and campus from their Mission Viejo home. “I can do a lot of studying in the car,” she says. “I can even write a paper. I’m used to it.”

Zhou also finds time to volunteer with Hyundai Hope on Wheels and work as a Radio Lollipop disc jockey at CHOC Children’s Hospital a couple nights a week. (She was designated a 2010 Carpe Diem Foundation Humanitarian Honoree.)

She began skating at age 5. “My mom couldn’t get me off the rink,” she says. “I love the feeling of wind in my face. It gives me a sense of freedom.”

In 2008, Zhou won her first international competition, representing the U.S. in Italy’s Gardena Spring Trophy, just as Sasha Cohen and Kwan had before achieving Olympic fame.

She’s most comfortable when performing toe jumps, and her favorite element — the triple lutz — is also her hardest. As she’s matured, Zhou’s artistic presentation has improved along with her technical elements. She works with a choreographer on facial expressions, arm movements and other body language to increase emotional connection with the audience.

While Zhou gets anxious before an event, the feeling dissipates when she gets moving. “Once I step on the ice, it’s a relief,” she says. “I get a sense this is where I belong.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 2