Vincent Zhou weathered a turbulent autumn that had him questioning his future as a figure skater. Juggling freshman classes at Brown University and hard-to-find rink time proved too much.
He took two months off the ice and four months without proper training to complete that first semester. Then he took a break from classes (which will probably extend through the 2022 Olympics), moved to Toronto in late December and began working with a new coach.
Zhou would normally be favored to join Nathan Chen on the podium at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week in Greensboro, N.C. He took silver last year before earning bronze behind Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu at the world championships.
But now, after a stressful stretch, Zhou didn’t sound like a complete joker when he said that a successful nationals would be “to just complete it and not fall more than six times.”
“It’s a disappointingly low bar for me,” he said with a laugh two weeks ago. “I just don’t know what to expect. If I had to choose on a quiz whether I was ready or not ready, I would definitely say not ready. But it’s in trying times like these, so to speak, that coal is turned into diamond.”
Zhou’s problems began early in the semester. The ice time at Brown’s rink was all reserved for hockey. So he (with his mom’s help) drove two hours to Boston to train. That was unsustainable. In late October, he announced a withdrawal before the top-level autumn Grand Prix Series.
“I didn’t even know what was going to happen for the longest time,” Zhou said. “I was just living day to day unsure of what the future was. Maybe I dramatized that too much. It’s what I felt like. It was just a rough time for me.”
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Meanwhile, Chen continued to make balancing the Ivy League and top-level sport look seamless the last two years. He’s gone undefeated without pulling out of any competitions as a statistics and date science major at Yale.
“I’ve never considered dropping [classes] or withdrawing [from events],” Chen said. “However, I have prepared myself to have pretty rough results at various competitions. I’m really swamped. I have this opportunity. I don’t want to give it up, but I’ll try to do the very best that I can. Fortunately, things have panned out for me as it’s been so far. That being said, it’s not a little walk in the park. There’s a lot of things you have to consider. There’s a lot of timing you have to consider. The classes are getting more and more difficult. They’re asking more and more of your time to study.”
As December final exams approached, Zhou had to decide whether to throw in the towel for the entire season. He had trained under Tammy Gambill in California and Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado, with some help from Mie Hamada to become one of the world’s best. That was before he moved to Rhode Island. Before he was off the ice for two months. Everything had changed.
Zhou, partially motivated to keep earning money through skating to help pay for college, decided to return for the second half of this season.
Hamada suggested a more proximate option: Toronto-based Lee Barkell, whose pupils include world medalists Gabrielle Daleman of Canada and Satoko Miyahara of Japan. Zhou met with him around Thanksgiving. He began training at the Toronto Granite Club on Dec. 23, Barkell said.
“I felt like I hadn’t skated in a lifetime,” Zhou said. “I was unsteady on my boots and not really able to do much at all. I didn’t know what to expect of myself. I was scared. Well, I still am, that I’m not going to be able to perform as I should at nationals.”
Barkell was more optimistic.
“Obviously we’re under a little bit of a time crunch,” said the 1980s Canadian pairs’ skater. “Certainly somebody at that level, and he’s obviously talented, you can get back a little bit quicker if you put your mind to it. I’ve certainly been impressed that the first day on the ice that he was definitely serious about this. Each day is getting better and better.”
If Chen is in a class of his own in jumping in the United States, an in-form Zhou is alone in the second tier.
He can land three different quadruple jumps in one program. Barkell said last week that Zhou was working on quad Salchows and quad Lutzes in isolation, but the big push was to work on his stamina for a four-minute free skate.
Three U.S. men will be sent to worlds in March. Chen has one spot. Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion ranked 11th in the world this year, is another podium favorite. Zhou is the only other man in this week’s field who has finished in the top three of a nationals or a Grand Prix.
“It’s going to be nerve-racking,” he said. “I’m going to literally be shaking in my boots.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.
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