Oh lordie, Vincent Zhou. What you have had to face. What you are about to face.
It would be different if this was just any year. But it’s Olympic year. And you are still only 17. And competing internationally as a senior for the first time.
It didn’t seem all that long ago that you were sparking up the U.S. Championships as an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old, winning novice and junior championships with no little measure of panache: tugging your little bow tie, tucking your arms bravely under your chin, and all the while landing big triple jumps that few young tads your age are mastering yet.
Yet here you are, off to the U.S. championships next week, an event you call “the most important competition of the year,” because it is, after all, the gateway to the Olympics. And because you finished second last year behind the swashbuckling youngster Nathan Chen, and promise to be able to go toe to toe with him in the quad contest, some of this glaring spotlight falls on you.
Zhou felt it last November, while competing at the Internationaux de France, only his second senior Grand Prix event. He finished only tenth in the short program, after falling on both his quad Lutz (combination) and a quad flip. And then onto the free skate, where he finished seventh, falling on a quad flip, and a solo quad Lutz, and singling and doubling out a thing or two besides.
Distraught, he posted a handwritten tweet, apologizing for his overall ninth-place finish. “I am learning about the danger of ambition,” he wrote. Perhaps the pressure was external, too. Jealousies afoot? “There are those who love me, adore me, see me as a threat, annoyance or source of entertainment and there are those who would rather I quit skating,” he wrote. “I am sorry to those whose respect I failed to earn, those whose expectations I did not meet and those whose standards I did not satisfy.”
Zhou did well at his Grand Prix debut, finishing fourth at the Cup of China. But by the time he got to France, he had “zero confidence.” And he felt the pressure. He fought as hard as he could through the programs.
“I feel like the biggest challenge in terms of confidence in moving up to senior this is all the expectations being compared with the top skaters in the world,” he said Wednesday on a conference call. “I know that I’m able to do all the quads that everyone else can do. That’s the reason I’m compared with other people who can do the quads, who are the top skaters in the world. “
He knows that his artistry, presentation and component scores have yet to catch up. He’s working on it. He knows that, this being Olympic year, he’s one of the contenders for three men’s spots that the United States has earned to Pyeongchang. “That’s a lot to handle for the first year senior,” he said. “I think I’ve done a good job of that this year.”
Well, there was that competition in France, a confidence grinder. When he returned from France, his group of coaches sat down and discussed it all. “We didn’t obsess over what went wrong, because that can lead to negativity and lots of stress,” he said. “We just discussed with a clear mind how we can make things better, what changes to make, based on how I was feeling. We realized that we were kind of pushing too hard.” The Olympics does that to you.
The thing is, Zhou had gone to France with an overly ambitious free-skate plan that was to include six quads. “I think that going for six quads wasn’t smart because the entire goal of this season was to take things by step,” he said.
Last year when he won the junior world championship title, he had done three quads. Then he went to four, which he used to win the gold medal at Bavarian Trophy. Then five, then six. “I haven’t done five successfully in competition,” he said. “So that’s why it wasn’t good to go up to six. We’re staying at five.”
They’ve made changes to his training regimen. And he’s been successful at training five quads in his free program.
Besides, heading into France, he’d been dealing with some shin issues. It’s all cleared up. He doesn’t like to make excuses. And he’s put France behind him. He’s hit the reset button.
Now on top of all of this, last week, he dislocated his shoulder while training a quad Salchow.
He’s seen all the videos of Daniel Samohin at Skate America, falling on a quad Salchow, putting his hands down to break the fall, then painfully dislocating his shoulder, badly enough that he had to leave the ice and withdraw.
“My incident was almost exactly the same,” Zhou said. “I flipped out of a quad Salchow, and I put my left hand down to support my body weight and I immediately felt the crack and the pain.
“I think it popped back in right away. It wasn’t a full dislocation.”
He visited a physical therapist right away to ensure everything was stable and that indeed the shoulder had popped back in all the way. He took the next day off and didn’t skate. There are still a lot of arm and shoulder movements that you do in skating. And those movements are restricted by such a shoulder injury.
The next day, he was back on the ice, but he didn’t do quads. “We have to be very careful right now and make sure we don’t make things worse right before the most important competition of the year,” he said. He feels he’s made a complete recovery now, although there is still one spin position he cannot do. He figures it will be cleared up by the time the men start the short program next week. He’s lucky he’s young and his body heals fast.
He’s had his share of injuries. After he became the youngest U.S. junior champion ever at age 12, he missed the entire 2013-14 season because of injury. He tore a lateral meniscus in his right knee and a discord meniscus. Surgery was necessary.
That old injury causes him no pain, he said, because the tear had been so big, surgeons couldn’t fix it. So they removed his meniscus. But the meniscus acts as a padding between bones and the impact of bones pounding against each other with no buffer is always a worry. But he doesn’t seem to have that problem.
His biomechanics are working well after a trainer at the Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs has helped Zhou strengthen his glutes, his hamstrings and his back to be “able to use the correct muscles and have correct alignment when I land.” All of this has been vital. He also trains smart on the ice, and limits repetitions.
With all of that, Zhou feels ready to take on the nation’s best in San Jose next week. He really can’t control whether or not he will be chosen for the Olympic team: the entire decision will be taken by a committee. He hopes everyone will recognize that he’s made big improvements since the Grand Prix season.
“I performed with all the passion and spirit I could muster,” he said in that tweet after the French Grand Prix. “I made mistakes. I failed my expectations and I am disappointed with the results.
“However, I am Vincent Zhou. I am young, ambitious, hungry and motivated. But most importantly, I am still learning.”