Vincent Zhou, after a time of tumult, is on track for his Olympic end game
Vincent Zhou calls 2022 his “end game.”
“After that, I’m going to go to school and focus on my future career,” the 19-year-old figure skater said. “I’m hungry for an Olympic medal. I know I’m capable.”
For Zhou, sixth at the 2018 Olympics, the latest tumult in teenage years full of overcoming obstacles came in late 2019. He tried unsuccessfully to balance an elite skating career with freshman classes at Brown University. More on that here.
He traded Providence for Toronto. Then, when the pandemic hit, he relocated to Colorado Springs and reunited with coaches Christy Krall and Tom Zakrajsek, who helped him develop into a world junior champion in 2017 and a senior world bronze medalist in March 2019.
Now, Zhou is 16 months from the Beijing Winter Games. His parents lived in the Chinese capital before moving to the U.S. He speaks fluent Mandarin and has a large fan base in the world’s most populous nation.
“I don’t think there’s another place I’d rather have my second and final Olympics,” besides the U.S., Zhou said.
The focus is Las Vegas this weekend. Zhou is one of nine Americans in the 12-man field at Skate America, an international Grand Prix event that, this year, is localized due to pandemic travel concerns.
It’s akin to a mini-national championships and the first top-level skating competition in eight months. Zhou is ready.
“I expect him to skate extremely well,” said Krall, who believes Zhou can put a quadruple Lutz and a quadruple flip in Friday’s short program and Saturday’s free skate. “He’s a big risk-taker.”
Back in 2015, a 14-year-old Zhou moved from California to Colorado. He was two years removed from his last competition, due to right knee surgery for a torn lateral meniscus and a focus on academics.
Within the first six months, Zhou learned a quad Salchow and a triple Axel working with Zakrajsek. He tacked on a quad toe loop, giving him an arsenal that only one other American could boast. Zhou finished fifth at the 2016 World Junior Championships while 10 months younger than anybody in the top four.
“I was certainly like, this kid is going to PyeongChang,” Zakrajsek said.
He was right. Zhou, at 17, was the youngest athlete in the entire U.S. delegation in South Korea. He debuted with a 12th-place short program, then posted a personal-best free skate to finish sixth overall.
The next month, Zhou was third after the world championships short program before a free skate with three falls left him 14th. If Zhou repeated his Olympic free skate score, he would have won the silver medal.
The next season, Zhou got past back and shoulder injuries, plus a slew of under-rotation calls at fall and winter events to finish third at worlds. He shared the podium with countryman Nathan Chen and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the two best skaters of this generation and, very arguably, history.
“There were people that laughed at me for saying it was possible,” Zhou said. “I accomplished that on my own terms.”
It was the first time that two U.S. men stood on the same world championships podium since 1996. The next morning in Saitama, Japan, Chen’s coach, the trademark gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, high-fived Zakrajsek at breakfast, noting the gap.
“I know after the  Olympics lots of people were like, he’s just another kid who can do quads,” Zhou said last week, “but I’m trying to break that perception and really have a name for myself instead of being talked about as Nathan Chen No. 2 or an underdog competitor or something like that.”
Zakrajsek said he has never heard Zhou talk in terms of wanting to beat Chen, who is 17 months older. Zhou has kept the focus on his own skating.
“But I know, previously, just from before I was coaching Vincent, watching Nathan and Vincent come up in the ranks when he was in California with [former coach] Tammy [Gambill], that there was a rivalry there,” Zakrajsek said. “You could see it from afar, right? But I think a healthy rivalry. I think they push each other.”
Skate America marks the 10th time that Chen and Zhou are in the same senior competition. Chen, undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang, finished higher in all of the previous events.
Most recently, the January 2020 U.S. Championships. Zhou placed fourth after missing four months of proper training and contemplating his future in skating before the Toronto move in late December.
Zhou, before taking those two years off in his early teens, in 2013 became the youngest U.S. men’s junior champion in history, relegating the defending champion Chen to third.
“Does Vincent want to beat Nathan? I think Vincent wants to be the best, and Nathan is the world champion,” Zakrajsek said. “So, obviously, you’ve got to deliver the whole package, right, and perform.”
If Zhou’s goal is an Olympic medal of any color, it is attainable regardless of what Chen does, or even what Hanyu does. He has already delivered medal-caliber skating on the highest level, and, if you listen to Zakrajsek and Krall, he is now ready to show more.
In separate interviews this week, each coach spoke first of Zhou’s maturation since he was last in Colorado in early 2019. Krall said that Zhou found “his own manship, his own soul,” after moving three times in less than a year as he turned 19.
The teen years are about to end. Zhou turns 20 on Sunday.
“He has physically adjusted to his body now. He has a man’s body, and he’s super-duper strong,” Zakrajsek said. “That is, I think, the biggest change. So everything he does, his skating, his spinning, his jumping, his interpretation, it all is now from a point of view as being a young man instead of a boy.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the last time two U.S. men made a world podium before 2019 was 1981. It was 1996.
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