By Karen Rosen | Feb. 08, 2019, 3:28 a.m. (ET)
Vincent Zhou competes in the men's short program at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2019 in Detroit.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It’s not unusual for Vincent Zhou to see “1” posted next to his name after his performance at a major competition.

But he’s never seen it stay there until Thursday night.

Two more skaters took the ice after Zhou in the short program at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships – including defending champion Boyang Jin of China – but neither could overtake him.

“You know I’m not used to it,” Zhou said of his No. 1 ranking with a smile, “but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.”

The free skate will be Saturday night and he's shooting for gold.

With world and U.S. champion Nathan Chen sitting out this competition to concentrate on his studies at Yale University, Zhou came in as the top U.S. contender.

And with Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan also absent and Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno making mistakes that placed him fourth in the short program, Zhou has a chance to win his first major title.

He scored 100.18 points, breaking 100 for the first time in international competition. Junhwan Cha of Korea is next at 97.33 points, followed by Jin with 92.17.

“This is my first time being in first place after the short program,” said Zhou, the runner-up at nationals. “It definitely does add pressure. At the same time, the free skate has nothing to do with the short program. I’m going to focus on getting my job done just as I would if I weren’t in first.”

Uno is still a formidable foe with 91.76 points. Keegan Messing of Canada is fifth (88.18) and Jason Brown of Team USA is sixth (86.57). Tomoki Hiwatashi of Team USA is in ninth place (76.95).

Skating to Exogenesis Symphony Part III by Muse, Zhou got a standing ovation at the Honda Center.

“My mind was laser focused and I executed just like I knew I was capable of,” said Zhou, who was sixth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “I’m capable of even better than that. I felt like I was actually a little tight from the nerves, and I’ve performed better programs than that in practice. Regardless, all in all, I thought it was good. It was like finally showing what I’ve been working on.”

Known for his passionate presentation as well as his big jumps, Zhou has been notorious for under-rotating his quads. He didn’t have a problem with that Thursday night. He executed his quad lutz/triple toe combination and quad salchow, but wished he had done a little better on his triple axel.

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Zhou, 18, said he has worked on making his jumps clean “every session, every day, every minute. There’s no magic technical correction. It’s just thinking about it and thinking about ways to improve it and working on it. That’s how I got better.”

And he put everything he had into the program, feeling even better during it than he did in Detroit at the national championships.

“This program is such an emotional one,” Zhou said. “The choreography, done by Lori Nichol, is very layered and it feels very effective.”

He said he was working on the program with Nichol in Toronto when she brought legendary Canadian skater Kurt Browning to work with him.

“When I skated back to him he was wiping tears from his face and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever skated like that,’” Zhou said. “At that moment, I realized the power my skating has – not just doing quads. That’s something I’ve taken upon myself to improve my skating as a whole. I think that’s starting to show, and this program really facilitates me feeling good about my skating, my expression and my choreography.”

Brown didn’t feel as good about his program, but he never lost his smile or buoyancy. He fell on his triple axel, then recovered to finish strong to “Love is a Bitch” by Two Feet.

“(I’m a) little bummed, but I’m not going to let that kind of shake me going into the free program,” said Brown, 24, a 2014 Olympian “I felt great, I was super relaxed and proud of the recovery from that moment forward.

Brown said he gets energy from the fans. “Nothing makes me happier than to skate for the home fans,” he said. “I’m so thankful to have such incredible fans.”

Brown has long struggled to put a consistent quad into his program. He actually tried a quad to no avail in the short program at the 2015 Four Continents.

He said he is still planning a quad in the free skate Saturday.

“In practice, it’s been going well,” he said of his work with Canadian coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. “It’s continuing to get more consistent. That being said, it’s still really new. I’m really proud of the progress we’ve been making. I’ll get home, have more practice and more reps going into the world championships.”

Hiwatashi, 19, who was fourth at nationals, skated to “Cry Me a River” by Arthur Hamilton. Although he didn’t fall on his triple axel, it was not clean.

“I still don’t feel like that was the best I’ve done,” Hiwatashi said, “but I also feel like that was very organized and I put everything together really nicely, so I’m very satisfied.”

He never expected to be here. That’s because he never envisioned placing fourth at nationals.

“Originally, I was planning to go back to Chicago, take a rest, get out of skating for a week or two,” Hiwatashi said.

Instead, he went to a training camp, earning a spot at the junior world championships and further delaying his relaxation and a trip to Japan to see family.

“It’s creating a lot of work,” Hiwatashi said of his pewter medal at nationals. “If it created work out of bad results, I would have been like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But since it was great results and I just did a pretty all right short, I’m actually really happy I was able to come.

“Everything’s a little bit tiring, a little bit too much, but also I feel like it’s a good experience.”