Vincent Zhou celebrates after competing at the ISU Team Trophy on April 12, 2019 in Fukuoka, Japan.
The wild ride that has been Vincent Zhou’s 2018-19 season skidded to a momentary halt recently.
“I had a little accident,” the reigning world bronze medalist explained ruefully in a phone interview with TeamUSA.org this week. Stepping onto the ice at a recent Stars on Ice tour stop, “I took a little fall, and something went off in my knee.”
Though Zhou says the left knee injury isn’t severe and won’t impact his preparation for the 2019-20 season, it has necessitated crutches, a course of treatment and time off the ice for the moment, something the affable, adaptable Zhou has embraced as a small twist of fate — one of many that has permeated an already eventful career.
Patience with fate has been a virtue for Zhou this season. After a sixth-place finish at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, where he distinguished himself by becoming the first skater ever to land a quadruple lutz at the Games, and a small bronze medal in the short program at the 2018 world championships, Zhou approached the 2018-19 season hoping to remain on a high.
A string of off-podium finishes — fourth at the U.S. International Classic, an ISU Challenger Series event in September, then fifth and fourth, respectively, at his ISU Grand Prix assignments, Skate America and NHK Trophy — quickly shattered those illusions, leaving the 18-year-old pondering what he was doing wrong.
“I’m the type of person who just tries to focus on myself and tries not to think about placement, but being a perfectionist it’s always in the back of my head,” Zhou admitted. “I was expecting a little too much out of myself after having such incredible skates at the Olympics and then placing top three in the short program at worlds. I just got a little ahead of myself, maybe. I had to sit back and ask myself what’s going on and how can I make it better?”
In the quad-mad world of men’s figure skating, Zhou’s answer might have seemed counterintuitive: back off slightly on the eponymous jump that tends to separate podium contenders from the peloton. Still, Zhou credits the (slightly) less-is-more approach with helping him re-evaluate his priorities. Determined to improve more than just his sometimes under-rotated jumps, he poured his effort into developing his basics and the bones of his programs, paying more attention to details and choreography as he strove to evolve into a perfectly rounded skater.
The strategy paid off — by November, he was back in the game, scoring silver at the Challenger Series Tallinn Trophy in Estonia. By the time February’s Four Continents Championships rolled around, Zhou was back to his podium standard, taking bronze behind 2018 Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and two-time world medalist Jin Boyang of China.
“I just kind of came back to competition feeling more ready and more trained,” Zhou said.
Before this year’s world championships in Saitama, Japan, Zhou also took the opportunity to work with Mie Hamada, coach of women’s stars Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara. He partly credits his world bronze medal, the first world medal of his senior career, to their collaboration.
“She helped me develop my basics and jump technique even more,” Zhou said. “I’m really proud of my improvement, especially during the last few weeks of the season. I think that sets the tone for next season.”
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His season concluded with another podium finish, this time on the top step at the World Team Trophy after placing second to two-time world champion Chen in both the men’s short and free.
At just 18, so much is still undecided for Zhou. There’s the question of where he’ll attend college (he’s had a few offers of admission, while declining to name his shortlist), and whether or not he’ll go the Chen route of balancing his studies and elite level training (he’s undecided, though looking into the possibility taking leaves of absence to prepare for major competitions). Long term, he’s pondering a courseload that tilts toward pre-med with an eye toward going into sports psychology or business and economics. Philosophy also remains a huge interest.
What he is sure of is that he’ll continue pushing to become a more complete skater.
“I’m not against trying new ideas,” he said. “I still have lots of room to grow and lots of areas I can expand to. I have no clue what my programs are going to be yet. I will say that my show programs are very, very contemporary and different and I’m having a blast performing them. I’m very open to trying new things.”
One thing he does appreciate is a big, dramatic finish.
“I really do like free skates with big endings and music that send chills through your body,” he said. “My free skate last year ended with ‘Come What May’ (from Moulin Rouge). It was incredible. If I could skate to it every year, I would.”
And he’ll continue trusting in fate.
“My goal would be to continue my upward trend,” he added. “If I can do that, I’ll be happy.”
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.