By virtue of being one of the top female figure skaters in the world, Ting Cui has traveled extensively domestically and internationally. And wherever the 16-year-old Pikesville resident goes for a competition, she brings sneakers, water, her smartphone and a map.
While athletes of her caliber tend to hole up in their hotel rooms to concentrate on their upcoming performances, Cui (pronounced Tsway) prefers being active and learning about the area she is visiting. Asked Friday whether she is recognized by local residents, she replied from the United States national team’s training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., “I think the skaters do, but most of the time, the fans don’t because I’m not that big yet.”
That anonymity could be brief if Cui fares well at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit from Friday through Jan. 27. She is one of more than a dozen skaters who will challenge 20-year-old defending champion Bradie Tennell for the women’s title.
Tennell, a participant in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is battle-tested and the favorite to repeat. But Cui and 13-year-old Alysa Liu of Oakland, Calif., have been cited by the sport’s experts as newcomers to watch. Nancy Strahan, a local skating judge for U.S. Figure Skating who has watched Cui perform, said she is in the running to be the Baltimore area’s first national champion since Bel Air’s Kimmie Meissner in 2007.
“If she skates really well, I can see her being in the top eight,” Strahan said. “If she skates well and other people don’t skate well, I can see her medaling.”
Reaching this stage in her skating career seemed a distant prospect nine years ago when her parents Lily and Larry Cui dropped her and her younger brother, Hao, off at an area ice skating rink to keep them occupied during the summer. Ting Cui latched onto a skating camp, and her interest in the sport took hold.
“I really liked how you glided on the ice, and it just seemed something you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else, in terms of the performance combined with the sport,” she said. “That just seemed really cool to me.”
Strahan, a skater herself, remembered noticing a diminutive Cui already surpassing her peers.
“She was working on jumps that would be unusual, such as an axel or a double salchow and double toe loop, which are all things that some skaters never get past,” Strahan said. “She was so small, but she was doing those. And she had good flow and speed across the ice. Most skaters are timid and don’t move fast. She had sort of the whole package.”
Fear of falling on the ice did not dissuade Cui, who said, “I knew it was always part of the process, and every time I fell, it just made every time I landed so much sweeter.”
Cui, who admired American and 1998 Olympic silver medalist Michelle Kwan’s connection with her audience, and South Korean and 2010 Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim’s ability to combine athleticism with artistry, said she struggled in competitions until her third one — a club event at the juvenile level — which she won at age 10.
“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I could be good at this,’ because up until then, I was just starting and just learning my double jumps, and my jumps were inconsistent,” she said. “So going into that competition, I didn’t think I was going to medal because normally I got in the middle half. So when I won it, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I won this?’ So that just really motivated me and inspired me. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really great feeling. I’m going to chase after it.’ ”
Since then, Cui has captured first place at the Eastern Sectional and South Atlantic Regional twice. She placed third at the 2018 U.S. Championships for Juniors and won the silver medal in the senior ladies category at the Tallinn Trophy in Estonia, in early December.
To prepare for the U.S. championships, Cui has been training in Colorado Springs, spending almost four hours daily on the ice and adding occasional weight training sessions. Towson High School, where Cui is a junior, has allowed her to keep up with her classmates and complete her assignments online.
Cui said she greatly misses her family and her mother’s dumplings. Although Colorado Springs lacks authentic Chinese restaurants, she said she calls and FaceTimes her family a few times every day.
Since June, Cui has been working with Tom Zakrajsek (pronounced Za-cry-sheck), who has coached 2010 Olympian and U.S. national champion Rachael Flatt, 2018 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and 2010 World Junior silver medalist Agnes Zawadzki.
Zakrajsek, who said he is trying to help enhance Cui’s technical program, said his student has already begun landing quad salchows and quad toe loops, which are the favored components of the Russian contingent.
“Ting is really unique,” he said. “She might be the most talented female skater in our country that I’ve worked with … and I’ve worked with some pretty good talent, like Rachael Flatt, Mirai Nagasu, Agnes Zawadzki.”
Cui, who watched the Winter Olympics at home, will compete against Tennell, who brought home a bronze medal in the team event. That realization has been awe-inspiring.
“It was always a huge goal of mine to be a competing senior at U.S. nationals, and then all of a sudden, I was thinking about it and said, ‘I’m a senior this year. I’m at the highest level for figure skating and competing for it now,’ ” she said. “It all seems so surreal, but I do try not to think about it and just take it one day at a time.”
Zakrajsek said he would be pleased to see Cui be one of the final eight skaters whose performances will play out before a national television audience. He said the one advantage Cui has is the judges’ and competitors’ unfamiliarity with her.
“When you’re moving up from juniors to seniors, you can compete very freely,” he said. “Her name is in the mix, but there are clearly other girls that have a little more experience and higher expectations. From a coaching standpoint, moving up to the senior ranks that very first year, it’s what I kind of call the honeymoon stage, and that’s why you see a lot of — especially in the ladies’ event — first-year competitors just burst onto the scene because when they’re young, they’re kind of immune to the pressure. Nobody is expecting anything of them. So they just throw down.”
Cui said her goal is to medal at the U.S. championships. Her ultimate objective is representing Baltimore and the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but she also knows the path is long and full of potential obstacles.
“I think a lot more refinement needs to happen in my skating and consistency,” she said. “But I just think everything could improve a little bit, and it’s just one day at a time, just pushing and working hard. I’m very present. I like to live in the moment.”
A star in the making?
Ting Cui, a Pikesville resident and Towson High School junior, is one of the top contenders for the women’s title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit from Friday to Jan. 27. Here is a glance at the 16-year-old seeking to become the first Baltimore-area skater to capture the title since Bel Air’s Kimmie Meissner in 2007.
Name: Ting Cui
Birthdate: Sept. 6, 2002
Club: Baltimore FSC
Career accomplishments: 2018 Tallinn Trophy silver medalist
2018 U.S. junior bronze medalist
2017 U.S. novice silver medalist
2015 U.S. intermediate pewter medalist
Family: Parents Lily and Larry, brother Hao
Hobbies: Photography, biking, eating