Seventeen years young and with a penchant for writing poetry – yes, poetry! – Vincent Zhou is on a mad dash to make his case for the U.S. Olympic men’s figure skating team this season, less than a year after making his senior debut.
And he also happens to be one of the best jumpers in the world.
Zhou, the reigning junior world champion, was a silver medalist at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to start 2017 and just two weeks ago skated in his first senior grand prix event in Beijing. This coming weekend he’ll skate at a second – the Internationaux de France – and come January he’ll be back at nationals to make his closing argument to be one of the three men to represent Team USA in February at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“It’s quite shocking to me to be in a place where I’m in my first full senior international season and I have a shot at the Olympics,” a blunt Zhou said at the Team USA Media Summit in September – back when he was only (only!) 16. “I wouldn’t have thought that I would be anywhere near the Olympic team a few years ago. I think with hard work in the right spots I can work to make it go my way.”
It will take a lot to go Zhou’s way to be sure of that: Fellow teenager Nathan Chen is leading the way for the American men, while more experienced skaters like Max Aaron, Jason Brown and Adam Rippon are all making a case for a spot on that three-man team, as well.
But Zhou is different, and – when he hits one of the four different quads that he can do – he’s as dangerous as anyone, and not just in the country, but in the world.
“We’re hoping that he can be up there with the technical scores that the best in the world are putting out,” one his coaches, Drew Meekins, told TeamUSA.org. “While he is 17 and quite younger than a lot of his competitors, there’s an argument for him that he’s the future of men’s skating in a lot of ways in this country. I hope that people can see him as the now, too.”
While Zhou was second to Chen in Kansas City, Missouri at nationals this past January, the Olympic selection for U.S. skaters is more inclusive than ever this season: It takes in the skaters’ body of work over two seasons, meaning he has a bigger uphill battle to fight.
He helped his case – at least a bit – in Beijing last month, recovering from an error-laden short program to put out six quad jumps in the free skate (placing only behind teammate Aaron) and surging to fourth overall.
In Beijing he had Meekins by his side, but also longtime coach Tammy Gambill and Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Tom Zakrajsek, making him one of the few (if not the only) skaters on the senior circuit to have three coaches at his side.
Zhou spends most of his time with Meekins and Zakrajsek in Colorado, but travels back to Riverside, California, to work with Gambill once every few weeks.
“He has a unique coaching situation,” Meekins confirmed. “You have a great team with myself, Tammy and Tom Z. I think it’s sort of a new or progressive model, but what we’ve found with Vincent is that it’s really a way to give him exactly what he needs. In short, it works. We think it’s made him as prepared as possible.”
That’s the challenge: Is Zhou ready – is he as prepared as possible – to be an Olympian? There are few skaters who make their senior debut in an Olympic season, meaning several years of experience have to be packed into one.
“It would have been more ideal to get myself out there more fully the year before the Olympics,” Zhou admitted. But then: “I’m looking forward to all of the challenges I’m going to face. This year is going to be a great learning.”
Zhou was born in San Jose in 2000 and began skating at a friend’s birthday party. By age 8 he was so talented that his parents decided for his mom to move with him to Southern California to work with Gambill, then eventually to Colorado Springs. His winning scores at junior worlds last season were the highest-ever, and he can do four different quad jumps on asking: Salchow, toe, flip and Lutz.
He’s also introverted: Zhou is shy when he first meets you, soft-spoken and rarely making eye contact. But he’s artistic and creative, too (hence the poetry), and says he does his best writing when he’s up late at night thinking of his goals, finding it hard to turn off his brain at times. His older sister, Vivian, is a violin player and attends MIT.
“He’s really incredibly smart and thoughtful and mature… Coaching him often leaves me taken aback,” Meekins said. “He has a great perspective on not only his training but also on life in general. He’s a really interesting guy for a 17-year-old.”
Earlier this season, Zhou took adversity in stride when he was forced to abandon a free skate that he had worked on with Olympic gold medalist ice dancer Charlie White. Instead he used Jeffrey Buttle, the Canadian Olympic bronze medalist from 2006, to come in with a new free (a “Moulin Rouge” medley), Buttle having choreographed his short program, as well.
Zhou’s Achilles’ heal up to this point has been keeping his body healthy: He missed much of the 2014-15 season due to injuries and last year struggled with boot problems in the lead-up to the season. While he and his team push to try and make the Olympic squad, there is also a sky-high alert to keep him healthy, with an extended group of experts working with him at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
He also lacks a mature artistry in his skating, some critics say, still being green as a senior skater and – as an athlete – someone who has focused mostly on making his jumps the showcase piece of his skating. He said he does not want to be known as a “jump machine,” while Meekins takes the point of view that they only have room to grow over the next few weeks in the artistry department.
Whether or not that part of his skating – and Zhou himself – will be ready in time is yet to be seen, but training mates Aaron, the 2013 U.S. men’s champion, and Mirai Nagasu, an Olympian in 2010, allow Zhou to learn on a daily basis from skaters who have been through and seen it all.
“Is he talented and does he have the jumps that it takes? Absolutely. But I don’t want to call any shots or put anything on him,” Nagasu told TeamUSA.org. “Do I think he has what it takes? Yeah, I believe so. I’m glad that I never have to compete against him (laughs) and we have a great future ahead of us in the younger generation.”
That’s the ultimate question: Is Zhou the now or is he the future? He could – certainly – be both.
“I recognize that I have already made significant improvements this season, but it’s still not enough,” Zhou said. “I’m hoping to show a more complete package this season. I’m hoping that for people that haven’t seen me before, they’ll say, ‘Oh, this teenage kid has some potential.’”
And more specifically Olympic potential, in Zhou’s case.