Vincent Zhou reacts after competing during the Men's Single Free Program at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Olympic hunger. Vincent Zhou knows how it feels.
In the weeks leading up to the 2018 U.S. championships in his hometown of San Jose, California, the figure skater pushed his then 17-year-old body to its limits every night in a Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center gym, desperate for one of the three men’s spots at the PyeongChang Games.
“It would be past closing time, and I would still be in there,” he said. “I’d tell myself, ‘This extra repetition is going to be the difference between me making the team and not making the team.’ I had a really rough grand prix season, I thought it was over, it wouldn’t be possible, other guys were more qualified. I was almost blind with hunger to make the team.”
Zhou made it, placing third in San Jose and an impressive sixth in PyeongChang. Since then, his career has taken twists and turns enough for an athlete a decade his senior.
Now, after coaching changes, offseason injuries, training stints in Japan and Canada, and a semester at Brown University last fall, the hunger that led Zhou to PyeongChang and a world bronze medal in 2019 is back, full force.
“I felt myself losing that at college,” he said. “My focus was split. It was hard for me to immerse myself in campus life. So, it wasn’t the best time, but I learned a lot from it. I look forward to going back once I’m done with skating.”
Zhou credits a short spell in Toronto last winter, training with renowned skating choreographer Lori Nichol and Canadian Olympic coach Lee Barkell, with restoring his passion and drive.
“After the semester ended, in Canada I kept an open mind — whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I’m done trying to expect myself to be perfect, to be able to do 17,000 quads (four revolution jumps). I’m going to try to make a little progress every single day and be proud of myself for that.”
After just a few weeks training under Barkell, the skater recaptured much of his form, placing a solid fourth at the 2020 U.S. championships. Then, COVID-19 unleashed full-scale disruption on the athletic world. The 2020 world championships, scheduled to take place in Montreal in March, were cancelled. With lockdowns pending, Zhou felt it wasn’t realistic to remain in Toronto.
“I parted with Lee on good terms,” he said. “I’m still in contact with Lori, and when she has time we’re still doing some virtual choreography sessions.”
Zhou also couldn’t move to Japan, where he trained for the 2019 world championships with Mie Hamada. So, it was back to Colorado Springs, where he and mom Fay Ge first moved in 2005. After several months working primarily on his own, he formally reunited with two former coaches, Christy Krall and Tom Zakrajsek.
Krall, a 1964 U.S. Olympian, sees a marked difference between the Zhou of 2018, and the person he is today.
“With his college experience — or maybe he’s more mature — he has an agenda, and he sticks to it,” she said. “He’s a driven worker, and he’s very organized, which I’m very proud of. He wasn’t a couple of years ago. He’s totally stoked to be the best he can be, rise above the estimation of any judge and just skate the dynamics that he can.”
Proving Krall’s point, the 19-year-old says he welcomed the time away from competition stress and shows this summer. With the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center’s gyms still closed, he embraced virtual coaching with USOPC strength and conditioning coach Brandon Siakel, focusing on core strength and body alignment.
“Coming back from lockdown and getting back on the ice really forced me to get comfortable with the basics again,” Zhou said. “I just found myself working my way up from, ‘Today I’m going to try triple axel (jump), next week I’m going to try quad salchow. How is my (quad) toe feeling? Am I even going to be able to do a (quad) lutz or flip this season?’ That’s how I started off.”
Some of those questions were answered at Cup of Colorado, a local competition held in mid-August. Zhou hit two of his most difficult jumps — quad lutz and quad salchow — as well as several solid triple axels. His new programs, although far from perfect, looked well advanced for so early in the season.
“The COVID (layoff) gave him time to take those mechanics and put them on the ice and not feel compelled that he had to rush around and try to get things done, but to do them right,” Krall said. “His posture is much better, his head is up, his shoulders are down and his knees are over his shoulders, for a change. He’s skating some of the best quads of his life.”
And, Zhou thinks, two of the best programs of his life. His short program, set to Josh Groban’s rendition of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” was created via two weeks of FaceTime sessions with Nichol, with former U.S. competitor Josh Farris skating alongside Zhou, holding the iPad.
“Josh would also set the camera down and figure out some of the movements with me,” he said. “It was a lot of listening to ideas and putting it into motion on my side through our own imaginations. It was definitely harder than regular in-person choreographing.”
The song, written by Don McLean in 1971 and inspired by the life of painter Vincent van Gogh, isn’t all too cheerful, but Zhou emphasizes that he’s not portraying van Gogh.
“It’s more an artistic interpretation,” he said. “(Van Gogh) spent time in a mental asylum, and some of the confusion and frustration he must have experienced is present in some parts of the choreography. We did our best to express it’s not just a pretty program, it has a deeper meaning.”
Zhou traveled to Artesia, California, to create his free skate with Misha Ge, a recently retired Uzbek competitor known for his dramatic and emotional performances.
“I remember his signature fiery step sequences and style,” Zhou said. “He would practice with just as much energy and passion as he would show in competition. That was inspiring for me to watch.”
Ge proposed a routine set to “Algorithm,” a 2020 release from the British band Muse, and Zhou jumped at the idea.
“The piece is bold, something different, and it takes guts to try it,” Ge said. “Vincent just soaked everything in. Sometimes, I push my skaters a little bit extra. I warned Vincent, ‘You will have to give 120 percent, there will be a lot of repetitions.’ He really gave it his all.”
At Cup of Colorado, Zhou gave a tricky sequence a bit too much, tumbling to the ice before finishing strong.
“If you feel that emotion in your heart, you want to show it to the audience,” Ge said. “It takes energy, handling that plus all of the quads. I have confidence in him that step by step, he will get there.”
Next up for Zhou: U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Pool Points Challenge, a virtual competition to be judged by national and international officials. Men have two opportunities to have submitted programs judged, this week and early October, with spots at the 2021 U.S. championships as well as $200,000 total prize money on the line.
“No way am I passing that up,” Zhou said. “It’s a struggle financially right now, because obviously no shows in the summer, no income.”
After that, skaters will head into a modified grand prix season, competing mostly within the borders of their training country or, in some cases, the European Union. Plans for 2021 international events are still uncertain.
Whatever the immediate future holds, Krall is certain of one thing: a new and improved Zhou will meet the challenge.
“He’s doing two very juxtaposed programs, bringing out his artistic sense,” the coach said. “Because he’s a better technician, he can let himself interpret the music more and entertain the crowd. … He’s got a vision. Desire creates the power, and he exudes that.”