READING - Caroline Zhang looked as if she were wearing skates instead of sneakers as she careened around a hotel room last week.

The diminutive, 14-year-old figure-skating prodigy rushed breathlessly from table to table in search of the proper credential for Skate America 2007, the Sovereign Center shuttle schedule, her practice times.

She collected an armful of papers that soon tumbled to the floor. Zhang sighed deeply and bent to collect them hurriedly. Finally, cradling the disarrayed documents, tilting from the weight of a backpack that pressed against her Team USA warm-up, she ran toward the door, motioning for her mother to follow.

"C'mon, Mom," she gasped, "the shuttle's leaving!"

Zhang's anxiety was understandable.

After winning the 2007 Junior World Championships, annihilating her rivals in several other international competitions, and drawing comparisons to her idol, Michelle Kwan, the 4-foot-9 Californian made her senior debut last night at this season-opening event.

Not only did she test herself with the first triple-triple she has attempted in competition, but also her rivals included the last two senior world champions: Kimmie Meissner, the dainty University of Delaware skater, who seems practically Godzillian beside the doll-like Zhang; and Japan's Miki Ando.

"She is very nervous," said Zhang's mother, Shuguang Zhao, on Thursday. "Very nervous."

But once Zhang landed that triple-triple early in her short program, the nerves vanished.

Skating a near-flawless performance that brought the sparse crowd to its feet, Zhang ended up third heading into this afternoon's free-skate final.

With a score of 56.48, she trailed only Meissner (59.24) and Ando (56.58). American Emily Hughes was fourth.

"I came here, everybody was really tall," Zhang said, "and I was wondering if they were going to jump over my head.

"It went really well," she squeaked in her high-pitched voice. "But I thought it could have gone a lot better."

That's the kind of cool confidence Zhang displayed the last few years as she dominated the world's best juniors.

The Brea, Calif., resident, who began skating at 4, had landed a triple salchow by the time she was 8. She won three junior Grand Prix events in 2006. At one, in Mexico, her victory margin of 53.60 points was the largest in the brief history of the sport's new scoring system.

"Does she really have bones like the rest of us?" one competitor asked. "Perhaps she is really just made of rubber."

At the 2007 Junior Worlds in Germany, one European coach virtually conceded the gold to Zhang before the skating had started, claiming everyone else was fighting for the silver medal.

Her combination of jumping ability, grace, on-ice poise, and personality already has caused many in the sport to forecast her as a favorite for the gold medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

"She's going to be a huge force on the world scene," six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge said. "From what I've seen of Caroline, she has great spins and jumping ability. . . . As she grows, she's going to get stronger and faster, and more comfortable in her body."

Until then, Zhang likely will be feeling the pressure of lofty expectations. A favorite at the 2007 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., she unexpectedly fell on a triple she routinely lands. The title went to her rival, fellow Californian Mirai Nagasu. Zhang settled for silver.

"It's too much pressure for someone that young," her coach, Ming Zhu Li, said at the time.

But Eldredge suggested that her move up to the senior rank might have the reverse effect.

"I know when I did that," he said, "you just say to yourself, 'Hey, there's no pressure. No one expects me to win. I'm just going to go out there and skate and have fun.' "

Still, Zhang was so anxious about her Reading debut that Li told reporters waiting after a Sovereign Center practice Thursday that the skater did not want to answer questions until after her short program last night.

Her mother asked event organizers whether she could exchange her seat to get one closer to the ice.

"She doesn't need me there," her mother said, "but she wants me there."

Normally, her mother said, Zhang calms herself by reading. She once read an 800-page biography of Henry VIII in a day.

Zhang began taking skating lessons at a Costa Mesa, Calif., ice rink. That is where she met Kwan. The style Zhang developed, equal parts athleticism and artistry, reflects the mentoring relationship that has developed between the two.

"She loves Michelle," Zhang's mother said. "They joke all the time. Michelle gives her lots of tips. They are great friends now."

Zhang was a first-chair violinist in her junior high orchestra. A ninth grader now, she attends an online high school, Connections Academy, to accommodate her travel schedule. After Reading, she will travel to a Grand Prix event in the land of her parents, China.

"Online is much better for her," her mother said. "In school, her teachers did not care about her skating. They would give her so much work because she missed so much. She felt bad. Now she is doing very well."

But it is skating to which she devotes most of her time and thoughts.

"The thing I like about skating," she said earlier this year, "is the freedom the ice gives you, the freedom you feel on it. You can do things that you can't do off the ice."

Like relax.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.