Amid a difficult season, Vincent Zhou relishes hard work on and off the ice

The world bronze medalist 2019 is setting big goals for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games: “I truly believe I can win a medal at the Olympics.” 

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Never one to shy away from hard work, American figure skater Vincent Zhou knows he has plenty of it in front of him if he’s to achieve his Olympic dream.

"I'm relishing the process of working for it all," he told Olympic Channel in a recent exclusive interview. "I don't expect a(n Olympic) medal to be handed out to me. I expect to have to work for it. And I'm 100 percent committed to that process and willing to take on the challenges.”

“I'm hungry and driven and motivated to do what it takes to get there. And I believe I can.”

On Thursday (14 Jan.) the U.S. Figure Skating Championships get underway in Las Vegas, where Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medallist and a 2018 Olympian, will aim for a fifth consecutive medal finish having placed fourth last January just shortly after nearly quitting the sport for good.

While two-time world champion Nathan Chen is favoured, Zhou will be in the mix, among other top U.S. skaters like Jason Brown, Tomoki Hiwatashi, and more.

“(I went from) barely being able to do a triple jump after stepping on the ice... to being on the podium at nationals with two clean programs when I didn't even expect to be in the final warm-up in the free skate,” he remembered in regards to 12 months ago. “That nationals is one of the biggest personal victories for me in my whole skating career.”

Having returned to his training base in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the spring of 2020, Zhou, the son of Chinese immigrants with roots in Beijing, has a determined eye cast on Beijing 2022, having won bronze at the most recent world championships, in 2019.

“I know that I have what it takes to medal on a world stage, and if I can medal [there], why can't I medal on an Olympic stage?” - Vincent Zhou

“I know that the stakes are higher, and people are going to be more well trained, but ... I’m really trying my best to make sure everything comes together for that one moment in time, that one chance to put everything out there.”

Zhou spoke at length about his aspirations for the 2022 Games, where he hopes to perform in front of family members who live in Beijing (including all of his grandparents), as well as the challenges that this past year has presented, his continued commitment to the artistic side of the sport and much, much more.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Focusing on the internal in a difficult season

Olympic Channel (OC): What are some of the practices you’ve developed over the last few months to try and get the best out of yourself on or off the ice while training?

Vincent Zhou: During the last few months, coming back from after lockdown, I think every skater has really had a chance to slow down and take a look at their skating from a different perspective. For me, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the aesthetic and packaging my skating. I've always been highly aware of what I don't do well in my skating and it's very difficult as a skater to be able to see yourself from a spectator’s perspective and know instantly what's a little off and how exactly to fix it.

I've really been working hard on polishing the smaller things, while also continuing to maintain the technical content and all of what most people seem to know me for. But as the Olympics approaches, I think it's critical that I present myself as a complete package with great programs, which I do have, [and] good artistry, good spins, everything. The 2022 Olympics, this is the end game for me, so I'm really, really working towards making sure everything comes together for that.

OC: When you talk about that sort of packaging, is that all done on ice? Or are you trying to do a yoga or take ballet or anything like that to bring out that side of your skating?

Zhou: I was doing some ballet with a private teacher who came to the rink to teach, but there was a resurgence of cases [COVID-19] in Colorado so we stopped.

I think the [Coronavirus] pandemic really has limited a lot of options that we would have had before, but at the same time being able to make do and look for resources in unlikely places is the second side of the page that not many people see. It's kind of like a silver lining. I've been doing virtual video calls with [choreographers] Lori [Nichol] and Misha [Ge]. I'm doing them on the ice right now to go over movements and revisit the original inspirations or ideas or feelings that inspired some of the choreography.

I think before the pandemic happened, maybe we might not have put this much effort into actually getting something like this done every week. So, in some sense, being forced into a limited travel arrangement was a good thing.

Another thing that I've really been working on the past few seasons is being able to see the big picture like I just demonstrated, being able to see the process, understand it, and appreciating the small steps along the way. That's something else that I probably used to take for granted, that I've really been noticing myself a lot more recently.

Zhou's focus on Beijing 2022 Olympics

OC: If we think ahead a little bit, how do you make an attack plan leading into Beijing 2022? You’re talking about being well-packaged and wanting to peak at that event, how do you go about doing that?

Zhou: It's a lot easier said than done. I want to get the climbing done this season, so next season I can just focus on maintaining. That being said, you know, things always happen... I can try and plan and do as many things right as possible to make sure that I get the climbing done this season and then maintain the following season. But I know just my instinct tells me I'm still going to be doing some climbing next season.

OC: It’s a high goal, going for a medal at Beijing 2022.

Zhou: I truly believe I can win a medal at the Olympics. I have what it takes, [but] I just don't possess it all yet.

But it's in there and I'm relishing the process of working for it all. I don't expect a medal to be handed out to me. I expect to have to work for it. And I'm one hundred per cent committed to that process and I'm willing to take on the challenges and do what it takes to emerge victorious. So, I mean, that's kind of the mindset that I'm taking for the next 15 months before the Olympics. I'm hungry and driven and motivated to do what it takes to get there. And I believe I can. And if you want to laugh at me, go ahead.

I'm going to focus on myself, try my best to block it out, and do all I can to achieve my dreams.

Believing in himself: 'Why not?'

OC: You’ve been through a lot at a young age, including the Olympics at 17. You’re 20 now. How do you feel like the maturation process and your experience have helped your skating?

Zhou: I'm a perfectionist at heart, so when I do something, if it's not the best, I'm not going to rest until I can do it to the standard that I know I'm capable of. I think a lot of my belief in myself comes from a long history of exceeding my own expectations, or at least exceeding the realistic voice in my head saying, ‘Most people can’t do this. Why could you?’

I get on the ice and it's just a ‘Why not?’ mindset. Why not try this? Why not try that?

OC: So with that mentality, is that how you look at Beijing 2022?

Zhou: I think it's very, very possible for the 2022 Olympics. I mean, obviously, the perfect image in every skater's head is those two dream performances. And, you know, everyone knows it's not likely, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to try to turn a chance into... muscle memory and a much higher chance of the right thing happening. I'm going to fully commit myself to that process.

The difference this time is that after my 2019 world medal and after all my personal growth since then, I know that I have what it takes to medal on a world stage.

"And if I can medal on the world stage, why can't I medal an Olympic stage? I know that the stakes are higher and people are going to be more well trained. I’m really going to try my best to make sure everything comes together for that one moment in time, that one chance to put everything out there." - Vincent Zhou

OC: How special would it be, in particular, to compete in Beijing, seeing as your family is Chinese and Chinese culture has played a big role not only in your life but in your skating, too?

Zhou: My parents and grandparents are all from Beijing, and all four of my grandparents still live there. So does a lot of my extended family. It's going to be super exciting to compete there. I would [call Beijing a] second home, but skaters move around the country to train so much and live in so many homes that I don't know what number home to call it, but I also know that I have a huge fan base in China and they're very supportive and caring.

I'm really excited to have the opportunity to perform there in front of them and... I mean, no pressure, but everyone's watching and I just really hope that, in my parents’ and grandparents’ hometown, I can make it happen.

2020 U.S. Championships podium (L-R): Brown, Chen, Hiwatashi, Zhou
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

'One of my biggest personal victories'

OC: In 2019, you went from being a world medallist to enrolling at Brown University and nearly stepping away from the sport for good. How do you reflect on that time and your decision to keep on skating – well, to really re-dedicate yourself to the sport?

Zhou: I had recovered from the brink of almost quitting skating and making a decision to just stay in school. ... I switched gears entirely. I was sure that I wouldn't compete at 2020 nationals and that all changed. After barely being able to do a triple jump after stepping on the ice... I went from that to being on the podium at nationals with two clean programs when I didn't even expect to be in the final warm-up in the free skate. That nationals is one of the biggest personal victories for me in my whole skating career.

After that, I started training for worlds (because) ... it was nowhere near the level I knew I would need to be to, you know, to defend my world medal from the previous year.

OC: Obviously, then, the pandemic hit and the first round of lockdowns occurred. Is that what sent you from Toronto back to Colorado?

Zhou: I came to Colorado Springs because I was originally going to get a new show program with Josh Farris after worlds. Since worlds was cancelled, we just moved our flight to an earlier date to go right away. And then the day we flew, lockdowns started. So we landed and found out we were stuck there. Obviously not being able to return to Canada, the only realistic arrangement was to basically switch back to a coaching arrangement here in Colorado Springs.

Learning from lockdown - and looking ahead

OC: Going full circle, what sort of discipline or focus do you think you’ve taken in this pandemic period? With limited competitions and the like.

Zhou: I think lockdown and the pandemic has taught me a lot about one's self-discipline, being disciplined, being able to still get your work done even when the times are working against you. Being able to stay in shape, even when you can't escape, dedicating yourself to workouts every day and all that coming back on the ice, you know, going from trying to get from zero to one hundred again.

You’ve got to be structured with your approach to it. You’ve got to be aware you can't rush anything. But you also can't let the motivation slip away from your grasp, and honestly, I would say I did a pretty good job of doing all those things.

OC: Skate America was held in a similar environment to what you’ll face at nationals, in a bubble, with no fans in the arena. What were your takeaways from that event in October?

Zhou: I was struggling with ankle pain that was limiting my ability to do the Salchow and any left foot take-off jumps. That was... playing with my mind a little [bit], a voice back there saying, ‘It's going to hurt.’

I think to pull through, to commit to everything, get my triple Axels done, get two or three quad Lutzes done, and give my performance all I had... I think it's definitely something to be proud of. There's also a lot of learning, learning experiences in areas to improve on my spin's body movement, in my step sequence transitions between my jumps. Every time I compete, there's always so much to take away, so much to go back and work on bit by bit.

We're really approaching my training in an intelligent way. And I truly believe that I have the ability to take all of those things and make them better than anyone's ever seen [from me]. And hopefully that will culminate in an Olympic medal. I mean, one can only dream, right?


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