Vincent Zhou reacts with teammates following the men's individual free skate team event at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 6, 2022 in Beijing.
Competing at the Olympic Winter Games takes a toll on mind and body. Emotions run the gamut: Satisfaction, for achieving a hard-fought goal. Elation or, if performances did not meet expectations, disappointment. And almost certainly, fatigue.
Now imagine, less than a month later, heading out to compete again. And on the world stage.
That’s the task confronting members of the U.S. Olympic figure skating squad at the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships, starting Wednesday in Montpellier, France. Of the 16 skaters who represented Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, 14 are set to compete in Montpellier.
“There is a huge letdown (after Olympics) mentally, physically, emotionally, and I think that’s regardless of how the athletes actually performed there,” Tom Zakrajsek, who has coached figure skaters at four Games, said.
A short break — maybe just a long weekend without the worry of training and recovery — can help athletes recharge for one last push.
“Anyone preparing for the Games uses every ounce of energy from their body and mind,” he said. “As a coach, you have to be sensitive to the need for time off, and that’s counterintuitive, especially when there’s a major championships coming up.”
Zakrajsek coaches Vincent Zhou, the reigning U.S. bronze medalist who contributed to Team USA’s second-place finish in the team event in Beijing before two positive COVID-19 tests took him out of the individual men’s competition. The 2019 world bronze medalist had been considered a medal threat.
“I’ve been taking a lot of time to process things, just trying to take it one day at a time, one step at a time,” Zhou, 21, told reporters last week. “Life really wants to get me down right now, but I’m not ready to go down without a fight. I’m training, trying to punch right back, doing my thing but giving myself space, allowing myself to process things appropriately.”
Zhou said he didn’t take much time off; a day after arriving back to his training home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he was back on the ice. Talking with Sean McCann, a United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee senior sport psychologist, as well as his parents and coaches, including Zakrajsek and Drew Meekins, helped him cope.
“A lot of people have reached out to offer support,” Zhou said. “I consider myself lucky.”
Zhou defeated teammate and soon-to-be Olympic champion Nathan Chen at Skate America early this season and qualified for the Grand Prix Final, which was cancelled due to COVID. But this world championships may be his final chance to earn a second world medal. He plans to return to Brown University this fall and is uncertain whether he will continue to compete.
“It’s been all about listening to what his needs are,” Zakrajsek said. “He knows he has to prepare a certain way to have a shot at a world medal or personal best at the world championships. Everybody on Team Vincent knows that (he can medal), and we’ve talked about how that can be a distraction to the actual process of skating well. So he’s very aware of that, and we’re keeping that pressure in check.”
“I’m hoping I can break out a spark of something at the world championships,” Zhou said. “I know I have it deep within me. I’m a very motivated person, and I don’t give up easily.”