Punching an Olympic ticket always feels good - especially when you do it with an exclamation point.
That's what American Vincent Zhou did on Friday (24 Sept.) at the Nebelhorn Trophy ISU Challenger event, confirming a third spot for Team USA in men's singles for the upcoming Winter Olympics Beijing 2022.
Zhou, a bronze medallist at the world championships in 2019, returned to the "Crouching Tiger" free skate that helped him earn that bronze and turned in a sublime performance after finishing the short program in first, scoring a 284.23 overall to win by some 40 points.
The ISU Challenger event in Oberstdorf, Germany, 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 were up for grabs in men's singles.
Also qualifying spots for their countries: Adam Siao Him Fa of France; Mark Kondratiuk of Russia; South Korea's Lee Sihyeong; Vladimir Litvintsev of Azerbaijan; Brendan Kerry of Australia; and Canada's Roman Sadovsky.
Zhou, Kondratiuk and Siao Him Fa finished 1-2-3, while Italy's Gabriele Frangipani was fourth - though not skating for an Olympic spot. Sihyeong, Litvintsev, Kerry and Sadovsky were 5th-8th. See the full results here.
Zhou helped the U.S. confirm a third spot, as did Kondratiuk for his team. Sihyeong earned spot No.2 for the Koreans, much like Sadovsky for Canada and Siao Him Fa for France. Litvintsev and Kerry grabbed a first spot for their respective teams.
Zhou is pictured above with Siao Him Fa.
"It's never easy skating last," a breathless Zhou, 20, said after his stunning performance, which included four quadruple jumps. "Coming into this competition, I knew I had the responsibility to earn the third spot."
The seven additional skaters brings the total to 30 - the Olympic quota - for Beijing 2022. Previously, 23 spots were earned at the World Figure Skating Championships earlier this year in Stockholm.
In pair skating, three teams helped their countries earn Olympic spots, with Spain, Georgia and Israel punching their Beijing tickets at Nebelhorn. More on that below.
Zhou steals the show with sublime skating
While Zhou, a 2018 Olympian, said he wasn't losing sleep over finishing inside the top seven, the American said he wanted to put out a strong performance in what is still the beginning part of the long Olympic season. He did just that.
His program included those aforementioned four quads: A Lutz to open, then Salchow, toe and a Salchow in combination. He hit an additional four triples - including two triple Axels - and brought the crowd along with him in what turned out to be one of his best-ever performances in the free skate.
An emotional Zhou celebrated in his final pose, clapping his hands together and raising his fists before bowing to the judges.
"What I did lose sleep over was my own performance, my own standards," a delighted Zhou added, smiling - clearly satisfied.
There were plenty of smiles in the "kiss and cry" and media mixed zone after the free skate, including for Kondratiuk, also 20, who helped the Russian team - which will compete as the ROC at the Games - earn a third men's spot.
"I was nervous, especially for the first jump. I landed it - it wasn't perfect - but it relaxed me," he said. "I feel honoured to be sent for this competition, and I am very proud that I did the job. My performance wasn't perfect, but I fulfilled the task that I was given."
Both Zhou and Kondratiuk will now have to earn their way over the coming months in crowded domestic fields, culminating at respective national championships in late December and early January ahead of Beijing 2022.
'Huge relief': Sadovsky, others express elation
While Zhou will factor into the final-group discussion should he make it to the Winter Games, the sense of accomplishment - and relief - was palpable in Oberstdorf on Friday. While skaters still need to earn their individual spots, they give their respective nations the opportunities to send more skater to the Olympics.
"It's a huge relief," said Canadian Sadovsky, who is the 2020 national champion but is ranked behind top Canadian skater Keegan Messing. "I didn't think it would be as hard as it was today, (especially) mentally. Training coming in was really good... (but) the moment that the music turns on, it just changes, it's different. In the long, I got better towards the end. I did what I came here to do - that's what is most important. I hope that the other competitions are easier this year."
While Sadovsky felt as though he gained steam throughout his "Chasing Cars" free skate, France's Siao Him Fa started strong and then had two falls in the latter half of his, to a Daft Punk medley. But three quads - two toes and a Salchow - helped keep him in second place overall.
"Today I feel quite happy for the first part of the program, the second part of it was quite difficult. I was exhausted. I did the most difficult part," he said. "I'm very happy to bring a second spot for France. That was the goal; I did the job. I'm happy."
They both earned a second spot for their countries, as did Korea's Lee.
"I'm so happy right now. I'm happy to get two Olympic tickets for (the) Korean men," he said. "I was very nervous. I was the last in (the penultimate) group. I don't like (skating last) because it's too long to wait (after warm-up). I accepted it, took a breath and focused on my free skating. There is still a lot of work to get to the Beijing Olympics. But I'm happy I got the ticket for Korea."
Pair skating: Spain, Georgia and Israel headed to Olympics
While seven spots were up for grabs for the men, it was only three in the pairs event, with top-finishing Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert of Germany (185.25) not competing for a position in Beijing 2022.
Instead, it was the teams that went second, third and fifth: Laura Barquero and Marco Zandron of Spain (181.61); Karina Safina and Luka Berulava of Georgia (178.16); and Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski of Israel (167.08) each earning a spot.
Barquero/Zandron and Kops/Krasnopolski were particularly clutch in the free skate, with the Spaniards leap-frogging from third in the short to winning the long program, helping them into second position overall.
Kops/Krasnopolski issued somewhat of an upset over the Chinese duo that was trying to earn the Olympic host country a third pairs spot. The Israeli team went from seventh in the short to fourth in the free, putting them in fifth overall - just four points ahead of the Chinese team of Wang Yuchen and Huang Yihang.
Both the Spanish and Georgian teams' qualification marks the first time in Olympic history that either country has sent a pairs duo to the Winter Games, according to Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating.