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With the Colorado mountains practically in Vincent Zhou’s backyard, hiking became his pandemic passion. Zhou made one final trek before starting his training for the 2021-22 season, climbing the last few miles to the top of Pikes Peak.
“One of the reasons I really like hiking is the feeling of getting to the top is super metaphorical for the journey to success in skating,” said Zhou, who is based in Colorado Springs. “It’s like that feeling of elation at the end of a clean program. You feel accomplished; you had to work for the reward.”
After his performance at the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm was more of a valley than a peak – Zhou finished 25th in the short program, one spot shy of qualifying for the free skate – he was back on top in September.
Zhou won the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, securing the coveted third spot in men’s figure skating for Team USA at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. His subpar performance at worlds had prevented the United States from achieving that goal last March, but Zhou eventually got the job done.
“Just the feeling of standing on top of an international podium again, it just felt right for the season – it’s setting the tone,” he said. “I didn’t really relate it to worlds too much, but definitely some closure there.”
Zhou had already transformed the catastrophe in his short program – in which the U.S. silver medalist fell twice and scored only 70.51 points – into a catalyst.
“Typically after extremely stressful or emotionally bad or traumatic events, a lot of the time you’d expect to take a long time to recover or at least go through some stages of grief or denial,” Zhou said. “I kept waiting for that lonely night where you’re going to break down and just cry the whole night. I kept waiting for it to come and it never did.”
Maybe that was because he was too busy talking, analyzing and writing down action plans with members of his team as well as with his mother. “I’m pretty sure I talked for 12 hours straight after that short program,” Zhou said.
He got a head start on this season, in which he and his team have vowed to leave no stone unturned.
“The big, overarching objective is to medal at the Olympics,” Zhou said.
At 17, he was the youngest member of Team USA at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, where he finished a very respectable sixth after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple lutz – actually two of them – in Olympic competition.
Then Zhou placed third at the 2019 World Championships behind U.S. teammate Nathan Chen, now a three-time world champion, and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“I am aware that I have very strong competition,” he said. “There’s a saying, it’s not always the best athlete who wins, it’s the most well-prepared athlete who wins. I’m trying to be that most well-prepared athlete so that I have the best shot I can have at medaling.”
Zhou has already shown consistency this season. He topped 300 points for the first time in his career at the Broadmoor Open in Colorado Springs in July with a total score of 303.36 points (99.64 in the short program and 203.82 in the free skate). Zhou then followed that up with 288.26 points (102.53/185.73) at the Cranberry Cup International in Boston in August.
At the Nebelhorn Trophy, Zhou totaled 284.23 points to earn the first ISU Challenger Series victory of his career after reaching the podium in three previous events. He has been working on fixing the mistakes – such as under-rotations on jumps – that kept him from reaching 300 points.
On this season’s Grand Prix circuit, Zhou will compete in Skate America in Las Vegas Oct. 22-24, then at NHK Trophy in Tokyo Nov. 12-14 with hopes of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final in December.
Zhou won his first Grand Prix medal, a silver at Skate America last season, but that was mostly a domestic competition. This year the field includes Chen, who has won four straight Skate America titles, as well as Shoma Uno and Shun Sato of Japan.
“Obviously, the depth of the field this year is greater and it would be a great honor to be able to stand on that podium this year,” said Zhou. “The most important thing is to have consistent results this year and maintain those results at nationals. So far this year, I’ve had a more consistent streak than I ever have before and my performance under pressure has been much better than in previous seasons.”
Scores up to and including the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January will be a key factor in determining the U.S. Olympic team. Because Zhou did not complete the competition at the 2021 Worlds, that score will not count against him.
But Zhou hasn’t totally left it in the rearview mirror. He kept the same short program performed to the song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” by Josh Groban, and not just because it’s his namesake.
“I think the elephant in the room is that it didn’t really go well at worlds, and yes, I do feel like I’m bringing it some justice again this season,” said Zhou, who got a standing ovation after scoring 97.35 points at Nebelhorn Trophy. “But the main reason I’m re-using it is because it is a great program.”
He chose the music himself. “The lyrics and the pacing of the program are natural for me to skate to and to emote to,” Zhou said. “It brings out a very passionate and nuanced side of my interpretation that people haven’t seen before.”
His free skate is also familiar and plays to his strengths. It includes music from the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and is the program with which he won the 2019 world bronze medal, so it’s already made a good impression on international judges.
“It’s very comfortable,” Zhou said. “When I played the music and just skated around to it for the first time this year, it just felt right and it’s culturally appropriate for the setting of the Olympics. It’s also culturally appropriate for me as a person.”
Zhou’s parents were born in China and arrived in the United States in 1992, where they became computer software engineers. He still has grandparents in Beijing and hopes they can attend the Beijing Games if he competes since domestic spectators are expected to be allowed.
Zhou, who is fluent in Mandarin, has worked with martial arts and wushu instructors to learn more about the movement “so it’s not some random Western take on what Chinese martial arts is.”
He has not decided how many quadruple jumps he will attempt in his free skate at Skate America, which concludes the day before his 21st birthday, but is leaning towards five quads “just to get a little more mileage on it.”
Zhou said that two quads in the short program and four or more in the long are now the standard for what it takes to be on the Olympic podium.
“Everybody scoring above 300 points, that’s what they’re all doing,” he said.
Zhou’s coaches score him at every practice, and he said his goal is to surpass 300 points on the international stage – not just at his local competition. At the Cranberry Cup, he attempted five quads – adding the flip to the lutz, toe and two salchows he does in a four-quad program.
“The goal is not necessarily to skate the hardest program or do the coolest tricks,” said Zhou, who has been working on cleaning up his jumps and improving his spins since Nebelhorn Trophy. “The goal is simply to skate the best program. If that means four quads in the long instead of five and if that means not putting the arms up and doing a more consistent, just normal plain quad lutz, then so be it.”
After all, every quad is a mountain to climb.
He said he can come into the rink and do a triple lutz without any warmup, but “quads are like wild, untamed animals and people who can get them under control – massive respect to them.”
Zhou has also been doing a lot of adaptability training, such as setting his alarm at 4 a.m. to simulate jet lag or running through his programs in costume in his first session after a few days off.
After he had a late practice at Nebelhorn Trophy the night before his short program, he did not get even six hours of sleep and felt awful the next morning when he stepped on the ice. But Zhou was still able to perform well because of the simulations.
Because of primetime television broadcasts in the United States, he knows if he makes it to Beijing, the competitions will also be held in the early morning.
He’ll also know what to expect because he has the experience of competing in an Olympic Winter Games under his belt. The 2017 junior world champion made the 2018 U.S. team in his first season competing as a senior internationally.
“You have Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, Max Aaron, then there’s me, what have I done?” he said. “So that was a really uphill battle that year.”
But Zhou said he had “this flame inside me that just kept burning day and night. I just felt this endless desire to live out my dreams and make the Olympic team and have a performance that I always dreamed of since childhood and, more or less, I ended up making that happen.”
He realized, though, that he could not burn the candle at both ends. Zhou withdrew from his fall 2019 Grand Prix assignments because of conflicts with his rigorous freshman class schedule at Brown University. When the pandemic hit, he had time to reflect on what he wanted out of skating.
“This year I find that flame has returned and it’s returned in full force,” Zhou said. “Every single day, no matter good or bad, I have that end goal in sight. I just have this boundless drive to want to show just how good I can be, and I think what’s more valuable than anything else is having that desire and believing in myself.”
After this season, the Palo Alto, California, native plans to return to Brown to earn his degree, likely studying business development or possibly marketing, finance or economics.
“Academics has always been my family’s No. 1 priority,” Zhou said. “I definitely still want to keep skating, but we’ll see how it goes.”
For now, he’s got a summit on his horizon.
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Vincent Zhou hoping to reach the summit of Olympic men’s figure skating originally appeared on NBCSports.com