Vincent Zhou, denied an Olympic chance, puts his skates back on

Vincent Zhou

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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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

The top seed Alcaraz beat 112th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. The Spaniard gets 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in the third round.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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