With a surprising medal at worlds, Vincent Zhou starts to step out of his Olympic pit

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Vincent Zhou apologized a couple days ago for sounding like a broken record, stuck at the point of describing his Olympic nightmare, a story that sounded just as poignant and painful in every retelling.

The fates conspired to overwhelm Zhou last month in Beijing, leaving him to deal with the sadness of missed opportunities while spending a week in COVID-19 quarantine.

It was bad enough that a positive COVID-19 test forced him to withdraw from the singles competition after having helped the U.S. finish second to the Russian Olympic Committee in the team event. Then he lost the chance to celebrate the team medal in Beijing because the doping case involving Russian Kamila Valieva meant that medal presentation has been delayed until it is resolved, likely several months from now.

Finally, there was insult added to injury: when Zhou tried to board the bus for the Closing Ceremony, where he hoped to find some redemptive joy in his Olympic experience, an official said he had been identified as a COVID-19 close contact and could not go.

Three weeks later, waking up with the sense of being in what he called a “bottomless pit,” Zhou told his agent and coaches and others close to him that he felt his whole career has been a failure and for nothing.

In that mental state, he was ready to drop out of the World Championships in Montpellier, France, until another emotion took over, the feeling of not wanting to live with the regret of not having tried. Somehow, Zhou pulled himself together to do more than just try, and he wound up skating well enough to win the bronze medal, a result that reminded the two-time Olympian not to lose faith in himself.

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“This is definitely one of the most significant and meaningful moments of my career,” said Zhou, 21, also a world bronze medalist in 2019.

With a sixth in Thursday’s short program and a fourth in Saturday’s free skate, Zhou finished third with 277.38 points to two Japanese skaters, Shoma Uno (312.48) and Yuma Kagiyama (297.60.)

“The most important lesson for me is no matter the difficulties thrown at you, you just have to keep moving forward,” Zhou said. “If you can’t move forward one step at a time, move forward half a step at a time.”

Zhou’s unexpected medal was not the only surprising result for the U.S. men.

Camden Pulkinen, who said immediately after finishing the free that his performance showed he could “contend for the top 10,” did far better, moving from 12th in the short program to fifth overall. Pulkinen was third in the free, where he had two solid quads in the first clean (no negative grades of execution) free skate of a seven-year international career.

It also was the only clean free among the top 20 men in Montpellier. It was good enough for Pulkinen to beat his old free skate and total personal bests by some 26 points, with scores of 182.19 and 271.69.

“I’m happy I gave myself a nice 22nd birthday present,” said Pulkinen, whose birthday was Friday.

Ilia Malinin, who dazzled the world in finishing second at January’s U.S. Championships, was in the thick of world medal contention after finishing fourth in the short. After opening the free with two lights-out quads, lutz and toe loop, and a big triple axel, he had a hard fall on a quad salchow and came undone, making two more major mistakes to finish 11th in the free and ninth overall.

“It was just a mess,” said Malinin, 17, the youngest in the men’s singles field. “It’s hard to explain what happened.”

Zhou’s mistakes included four jumps that were called short of the intended number of rotations. Solid grades of execution on his first two quads made back enough of the lost points to give him a margin of 5.35 over fourth finisher Morisi Kvitelashvili of Georgia, who needed very generous scores to stay .34 ahead of Pulkinen.

“Obviously, I’m a little disappointed in the mistakes, but as I said after the short program, it’s a miracle for me even being here,” Zhou said.

It would be nice if this medal allowed him to wipe the 2022 Olympics from his memory. It would also be unrealistic. The record may no longer be stuck, but the scratch that caused it to play on a maddening loop still is there.

“The grief of losing my opportunity at the Olympics is something that will stay with me a long time,” Zhou said. “Dealing with mental or emotional trauma like that, for lack of a better word, sometimes takes month and years.

“I’m sure there will be some difficult times for me ahead, where I still have to process the feelings related to what happened at the Olympics.”

For Zhou, the days ahead also will include a busy show schedule and, in August, resuming studies at Brown University. He left after his first semester in December 2019 because of issues with finding practice ice and his need to have face-to-face coaching.

Zhou had suddenly moved into the world elite at 17 with an unforeseen, impressive and expectation-raising sixth at the 2018 Olympics. At the end of a subsequent four-year cycle that was draining even before his 2022 Olympic calamity, Zhou is ready to take time just to enjoy being on the ice before thinking of whether he wants to keep competing.

“But the decision to come here and compete and walking away with a medal will help me a lot and reinforce my faith in myself,” Zhou said. “There is a lot more deep within me than I think is possible at times.”

A broken record can only move ahead in a new groove.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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