Vincent Zhou skates into first place at Olympic qualifier, leads Nebelhorn Trophy after short program

The ISU Challenger is the final stop for Beijing 2022 positions to be earned for each country. Seven spots are up for grabs in men's singles.

By Nick McCarvel

Vincent Zhou is halfway to securing a third spot for the Team USA men for the Winter Olympics Beijing 2022.

The American figure skater, a bronze medallist at the world championships in 2019, is safely into first with a 97.35 - nearly 10 points ahead of the second-place finisher - at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, after the men's short program.

The ISU Challenger event is being used as the final Olympic qualifier for figure skating, with quota spots - positions qualified for each country, not individual skaters - up for grabs across all four disciplines. Seven said spots are available for men's singles.

The U.S. already has two spots from worlds earlier this year, but Zhou missed the free skate there, and therefore was required to compete at Nebelhorn to confirm a third. Russia's Mark Kondratiuk is in a similar situation, while Canada, France and South Korea are looking to add a second spot.

"I definitely feel like I let down Team USA at Worlds, but I learned a lot of lessons coming out of that," Zhou said after the short program. "We did so much... training under all different circumstances to try and prepare my mind and my body to perform no matter what the situation is. And I think that's going to pay off big this year."

He added about the short program: "I'm proud of myself for managing to focus in on the program when it mattered. And I got everything done to get to a decent level of quality."

Kondratiuk is in fifth behind Zhou, scoring a 81.48. An energetic Adam Siao Him Fa of France hit a personal best 89.23 for second place, followed by Brendan Kerry of Australia (85.89), Gabriele Frangipani of Italy (83.11) and Kondratiuk.

Vladimir Litvintsev of Azerbaijan and Lee Sihyeong of Korea round out the top seven in the Olympic race, though Italy is not able to add a second spot. That means Canada's Roman Sadovsky, in eighth, is in contention.

In pair skating, only three Beijing spots are up for grabs. Georgia's Karina Safina and Luka Berulava sit in first with a 66.46 after the short program, followed by Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert of Germany (66.26) and Spain's Laura Barquero and Marco Zandron (62.01). The German pair is not up for one of those three spots, while Barquero/Zandron are looking to be their country's first-ever pairs team at a Winter Games.

Follow results from Nebelhorn here.

Zhou: 'I just want to go out and perform'

It's been a roller coaster to get here for Zhou, 20, who fell from third at worlds in 2019 to missing out on the free skate completely at the 2021 edition after a dismal short program. His failure to join teammates Nathan Chen and Jason Brown in the free meant he had to come to Nebelhorn to secure the third U.S. spot, which is a quota spot for the country and will not be given to an individual athlete until January at the U.S. Championships.

Skating to "Vincent" for the second consecutive season, Zhou opened with a massive quadruple Lutz-triple toe combination, then held on for a quad Salchow and hit his triple Axel to close. His executed elements (technical - 54.63) and program components (artistic - 42.72) marks were the class of the field.

"Today, I struggled a little because last night we had that late practice and then this morning was super early," he said. "But I'm proud of myself for managing to focus in on the program when it mattered. And I got everything done to get to a decent level of quality."

For the free skate, Zhou said: "I just want to go out and perform and show what I'm capable of, because that's what I deserve for myself and that's what Team USA deserves for me. So I'm looking forward to it."

While Zhou was satisfied, France's Siao Him Fa was beaming - and in full Darth Vader character - after his personal best "Star Wars" short program, the 20-year-old a step closer to nabbing a second spot for team France at the coming Games.

"I'm happy," he said after his program, which entailed a quad toe-double toe combo, triple Axel (with a step) and quad Salchow.

"I know that I have to improve on a lot of things, but I'm in a good way," he said. "I'm going to try to bring a second spot for France. I feel quite confident after my performance. I know that I need to continue in that way for the free."

Adam Siao Him Fa, France

Olympic watch: Race is on for 7 spots

The top 11 skaters all scored about 70 points, with four skaters within six points of seventh-place finisher Lee. Sadovsky, in eighth, is within the Olympic cutoff among eligible skaters.

As is Australia's Kerry, the 26-year-old who is looking to qualify for his third Games. He was formerly coached by his mother, Olympic ice dancer Monica MacDonald.

"I'm really happy," he said. "Today wasn't perfect, but it was the first time in a long time that I actually felt the stress and the pressure. Thanks to my coaching team, my family and friends, I was able to push that aside and do my job. It was a fight today - every second of that program I was pushing, thinking and fighting. It's an achievement for myself, regardless of the result in the competition."

Kerry hit a quad toe, triple Lutz-triple toe and triple Axel in his "Leave a Light On" short program. The Australian is coming back from a foot injury that forced him to miss worlds earlier this year - following a season of frustrations due to travel and competition restrictions due to the pandemic.

He added: "I don't think you can win or solidify anything with the short program, but you can certainly lose it. Today I have kept myself in contention to earn that Olympic spot."

Nineteen-year-old Frangipani is in fourth place, though he cannot qualify an extra spot for Italy.

"There was a lot of pressure... when [the program] started I was really scared; I've put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "It went down after the first quad because it's the most difficult element [for me]. Now I feel better, but there is still the free skate."

Brendan Kerry, Australia

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