Vincent Zhou, deprived of an Olympic chance, puts on his figure skates
There are still days that Vincent Zhu does not feel himself. It takes willpower to put on your figure skates while trying to forget your Olympic experience.
“Then I walk on the ice and instantly remember everything that happened,” he said. “I’m having a hard time restraining myself right now from talking about it.”
Zhou, after being sidelined from 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 returning to Brown University this fall and isn’t sure if he’ll try to balance school and skating again.
“Coming out of the Olympics was a really tough time for me,” he said. “I would say one of the hardest times of my entire life.”
Zhou, a Beijing Games medal contender, was the only U.S. team member in any sport held out of competition in China due to COVID policies.
The 21-year-old took part in the team event, winning at least one silver medal. It will be gold if Russia is disqualified Kamila Valievatests positive for drugs, so the medals have not yet been awarded.
But his positive COVID test the day after the team event kept him out of subsequent individual competition.
He was quarantined in a hotel room for a week, with mild symptoms for some. He could only watch his rivals skate for medals. He was then denied access to the closing ceremony on COVID protocols despite his participation in the gala exhibition earlier in the day.
Zhou is the bronze medalist of the 2019 World Championships and was the only man to win a competition Nathan Chen in this Olympic cycle, making it to Skate America in October.
He was the youngest member of the entire 2018 U.S. Olympic team at 17 years and 3 months, when he placed sixth in PyeongChang with a personal best of nearly 20 points. These were supposed to be his peak games, in the town where his parents once lived.
In late 2019, he realized he couldn’t manage Brown University’s freshman classes with competitive skating at the time. He therefore chose the latter, putting his future career on hold for three years.
“I’m hungry for an Olympic medal,” Zhou said in the fall of 2020, calling the Beijing Olympics “the endgame.” He couldn’t have imagined how it would turn out.
After returning to the United States last month, Zhou only took one day off before returning to the ice.
He is still processing his Olympic experience. Zhou spoke regularly with a US Olympic and Paralympic Committee sports psychologist who has worked with Olympians for decades and said it was one of the most difficult situations an athlete faces.
“Even though even though I have a really tough day, I keep hitting 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 this isolation chamber five weeks ago.
He reviewed his programs in the confined space and studied the video and did visualization exercises to the music of his program with his coaching staff.
His coaches, Tom Zakrajsek and Drew Meekinstalked about the men’s Olympic competition with Zhou via text as it happened, a half-hour drive from his room.
“Part of what got him through that moment was knowing he would have another chance to be on the ice,” said Meekins, who also introduced Zhou to Wordle during his quarantine. “He’s made it clear that he really wants this situation not to be the last note of his season.”
Zhou was “untrained” after being off the ice for eight days in China, Zakrajsek said. Then jet lagged from the flight and emotionally drained from the whole experience.
The coach estimated that it took Zhou 10 days to do a full free skating trial at altitude in Colorado. Some days, Zhou prefers to skate alone.
“I’ve helped athletes recover from injury, and it’s definitely not the same,” Zakrajsek said.
Zakrajsek has been a coach for 32 years and has never experienced a comparable situation. So he tried something he had never done before. Last Sunday, while at A Likely Story Bookshop in Colorado Springs, he had the idea of starting a book club with Zhou for the world championships.
He bought two books – based on titles and covers – and let Zhou have the first choice.
“To have something to talk about during the world championship timeouts in addition to figure skating,” Zakrajsek said. “I think that’s part of helping Vincent overcome that and become, you know, Vincent Zhou again.”
Zhou, who grew up enjoying the outdoors in Colorado, chose “The Moth and the Mountain” because of the snowy peak on the cover. It turns out to be a British soldier who, in 1934, tragically failed to attempt to become the first person to climb Mount Everest, doing it alone.
The past few weeks have not been a lonely endeavor for Zhou. He credited his coaches, his sports shrink, his parents and even his COVID liaison officer in China.
“No one can really mitigate the impact of the things that happened, but just having them there is always helpful,” he said. “Just taking that step and going to the world championships and doing my best is already a big win for me.”
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Vincent Zhou, deprived of an Olympic chance, puts on his figure skates originally appeared on NBCSports.com