There are still days that Vincent Zhou doesn’t feel like himself. It takes will to put on his figure skates while trying to forget his Olympic experience.
“Then I step on the ice, and I’m instantly reminded of everything that happened,” he said. “I’m having a hard time keeping my myself together right now talking about it.”
Zhou, after being sidelined from the individual Olympic competition due to a positive COVID-19 test, is determined to skate at next week’s season-ending world championships in France.
It could be the last competition of his career. He’s headed back to Brown University this fall and does not know if he will again try to balance studies and skating.
“Coming off of the Olympics has been a really challenging time for me,” he said. “I would say one of the most challenging times of my whole life.”
Zhou, a medal contender going into the Beijing Games, was the lone member of Team USA across all sports kept out of competition in China due to COVID policies.
The 21-year-old did take part in the team event, earning at least a silver medal. It will be gold if Russia is disqualified over Kamila Valieva‘s positive drug test, so the medals haven’t been awarded yet.
But his positive COVID test, the day after the team event, kept him out of the later individual competition.
He was quarantined in a hotel room for a week, with mild symptoms for part of it. He could only watch as his rivals skated for medals. He was later denied access to the Closing Ceremony over COVID protocols despite participating in the gala exhibition earlier that day.
Zhou is the 2019 World Championships bronze medalist and was the only man to win a competition over Nathan Chen in this Olympic cycle, doing so at Skate America in October.
He was the youngest member of the entire 2018 U.S. Olympic team at 17 years, 3 months, when he placed sixth in PyeongChang with a personal best by nearly 20 points. These were supposed to be his peak Games, in the city where his parents once lived.
In late 2019, he realized that he could not at the time handle Brown University freshman classes together with competitive skating. So he chose the latter, putting his future career on hold for three years.
“I’m hungry for an Olympic medal,” Zhou said in fall 2020, when calling the Beijing Olympics his “end game.” He could not have imagined how it would play out.
After returning to the U.S. last month, Zhou took just one day off before getting back on the ice.
He is still processing his Olympic experience. Zhou has regularly talked with a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sports psychologist who has worked with Olympians for decades and said it is one of the most difficult situations he has seen an athlete face.
“Even if even if I have a really hard day, I’m still punching right back the next day,” Zhou said. “I’m a fighter. I’m not ready to go down yet.”
Zhou’s preparation for these worlds began in that isolation room five weeks ago.
He did walkthroughs of his programs in the confined space and studied video and did visualization exercises to his program music with his coaching team.
His coaches, Tom Zakrajsek and Drew Meekins, talked through the Olympic men’s competition with Zhou by text as it was happening, a half-hour drive from his room.
“Part of what helped him work through that moment was the idea of knowing that he would get another chance to be on the ice,” said Meekins, who also introduced Zhou to Wordle during his quarantine. “He made it clear that he really intended this situation not being the last note of his season.”
Zhou was “detrained” from being off the ice for eight days in China, Zakrajsek said. Then jetlagged from the flight and emotionally drained from the whole experience.
The coach ballparked that it took Zhou 10 days before he did a full free skate run-through at altitude in Colorado. Some days, Zhou prefers to skate on his own.
“I’ve helped athletes back from injury, and this is certainly not the same thing,” Zakrajsek said.
Zakrajsek has coached for 32 years and never had a comparable situation. So he tried something he’s never done before. Last Sunday, while in A Likely Story Bookshop in Colorado Springs, he was inspired to start a book club with Zhou for the world championships.
He bought two books — based on the titles and covers — with one for each of them to read.
“To have something to discuss in down time at worlds besides figure skating,” Zakrajsek said. “I think that’s part of helping Vincent weather this and get back himself to, you know, being Vincent Zhou.”
Zhou asked Zakrajsek to pick his book for him. Zakrajsek chose “The Moth and the Mountain” because of the snow-capped peak on the cover, given Zhou has grown to enjoy the Colorado outdoors. Turns out, it’s about a British soldier who in 1934 tragically failed attempting to become the first person to climb Mount Everest, doing it alone.
The last weeks have not been a solo effort for Zhou. He credited his coaches, his sports psych, his parents and even his COVID liaison officer in China.
“Nobody can really lessen the impact of the things that happened, but simply their presence is always helpful,” he said. “Simply taking this step and going to worlds and giving it my best shot is already a big win for me.”
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