GREENSBORO, N.C. – When Vincent Zhou stepped off of the ice after a clean short program at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, he must have breathed several sighs of relief.
After a stressful few months, including fights to find ice time, his studies at Brown University and a late-December coaching change and move to Toronto, the reigning world bronze medalist was back in the game.
“I mean, obviously it was not up to the level I was at when I had my success at the end of last season, but give a little time and we’ll keep building and building,” Zhou said of his short, which included a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel and earned 94.82 points, good enough for fourth place behind Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and a surprising Andrew Torgashev.
With three U.S. men’s spots available for the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal in March, Zhou is just a bit over three points out of third place. (A skater’s body of work is also considered in naming the world team.) He’s about 20 points behind Chen, but hey, a guy’s got to start someplace.
“We started officially on the ice December 23rd, and the big push had been obviously on getting his stamina up, so the emphasis is on program run-throughs,” said new coach Lee Barkell, who trains his skaters at the Toronto Granite Club.
“(There’s) that fine line about not pushing too much at the beginning, you don’t want to go full bore and get injured, etc.,” he continued. “You really have to have specific goals, and our theme has been one session at a time, to get Vincent’s confidence back in his skating.”
Lori Nichol, Zhou’s choreographer and another of his coaches in Toronto, thinks Zhou was chafing at the bit to put another quad into his short here, but caution prevailed.
“The main goal is to get him to nationals healthy physically, healthy emotionally, healthy mentally, doing the best he could for step one,” she said. “It’s so tempting, he wants to do all the other quads and we’re beginning them, but the goal is to do it when his body is really ready.”
The move to Toronto, where Zhou will share the ice with skaters including Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and Canada’s Gabby Daleman, was made possible by a leave of absence from Brown, which permits students to take indefinite time away.
On Saturday, Zhou said he planned to skate “school-stress free through the 2022 Olympics.” Finding adequate ice time near Brown, located in Providence, Rhode Island, proved too difficult.
“Obviously the first option was Brown’s main auditorium, which is the rink on campus, but the ice there is mostly given to hockey skaters,” Zhou said. “Also, I skated a session or two there and the ice was so thin, my toe pick hit sand on a triple Lutz. Then the hockey coaches were complaining I did permanent damage to the ice. I mean, fill the hole in with snow and cut the ice down. So that was out of the picture.”
Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson’s rink near Boston was a possibility, but traffic stretched the commute to over four hours a day, which wasn’t feasible. Other rinks were considered and rejected for one reason or another. Finally, Zhou withdrew from his Grand Prix events and focused on his classes.
“It’s best for me if I can fully dedicate myself to one at a time, so that I can produce the best result possible instead of having to split my attention and energy and focus between two things that are hugely important to me,” he said.
Nichol was a big draw to Toronto. The renowned choreographer, who has helped polish the skating skills of skaters ranging from Michelle Kwan to Patrick Chan and Carolina Kostner, can now work with Zhou regularly to strengthen his performance quality. Over the past month, she and Barkell targeted skating skills and landing positions.
“We wrote down all of the things we would love to see him improve, to be the best he can be,” Nichol said. “We just start pulling out the things that can be done now, and if he is blessed to go to worlds, we can do some next week and the next and the next, and (have the changes) be attainable and sustainable for worlds.”
According to Nichol, Zhou is an intense and willing student.
“I will say one thing about a landing position on Friday and he’ll come in the next week and say, ‘I’ve been constantly thinking about that,’” she said. “You don’t have to force anything on him, he loves learning. And we’ve created an environment where we work with him, share everything we know, and then we’re strong enough that the rest comes from him.”
Barkell added that Zhou’s years of training under coaches including Tammy Gambill and Tom Zakrajsek has built a strong technical base.
“I’m coming in more from the technique aspect and, again, the overall package,” he said. “With (Vincent) being new, too, it’s kind of a little bit of watch and see how he works independently. You don’t change stuff that doesn’t need to be fixed, you need to be find little weaknesses and tweak them.”
Thus far, Zhou gives that approach a big thumbs-up.
“I think Lee has been very, very good with understanding me as a skater and helping me build toward this competition in a way I feel comfortable with,” the skater said, adding that he didn’t think a complete do-over of his jump technique was necessary.
“Let’s say you work with one coach and you have a pile of bricks that represents the technique they’ve given to you,” Zhou said. “You’re not just going to just put that all aside, you’re going to build it, apply it in different ways. I really look forward to seeing what I can accomplish with Lee in that way.”
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