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Column: Vincent Zhou rediscovers his competitive drive ahead of Skate America

Vincent Zhou performs during the men's free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Vincent Zhou performs during the men’s free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.
(Lynn Hey / Associated Press)

Vincent Zhou wondered when he’d get back on the ice after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down figure skating earlier this year, just before the world championships. The San Jose native didn’t know when he’d compete again or how he’d prepare for competitions after border-crossing issues prevented him from returning to Toronto to work with his coach, Lee Barkell.

“In times like these where the next month, even the next week, is highly uncertain, it can seem easy to lose track of an objective or a goal,” said Zhou, who became the first skater to land a quadruple lutz during the Olympics while finishing sixth at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Accustomed to following schedules and mapping out his training, Zhou (pronounced “Joe” with a soft j) learned to improvise. He arranged to practice in Colorado Springs with coach Christy Krall and set up Facetime workouts with his trainer in California. While confusion reigned, he has clung to his dream of skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who grew up in her parents’ restaurant in Arcadia, is determined not to let the coronavirus close the family business.

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“I remember in 2018 before that season of the Olympics, I just had this fire in my belly that just kept me going day and night and drove me to do things that I thought were impossible. After the Olympics, I was still motivated to skate, but I just didn’t feel that same fire,” said Zhou, who turns 20 on Monday.

“But now, this season before the Olympics, I found it again. And I don’t know how, or why. It’s just I feel it. I feel it in me. I feel like it’s driving me to work harder and do better every single day, and that’s what’s been keeping me going through these really difficult times.”

Zhou will resume his journey this weekend in Las Vegas at Skate America, the first Grand Prix competition on the 2020-21 figure skating calendar. It will be contested Friday and Saturday at the Orleans Arena and will be aired live on NBC on Saturday and on NBCSN on Friday and Saturday. Following the cancellation of Grand Prix events in Canada and France as well as the 2021 Four Continents championships and the postponement of the Grand Prix Final, Skate America will be a crucial event for skaters to hone their competitive instincts as they build up to the 2022 Olympics.

“We’ve really got to grab on to this opportunity that we all have so that we don’t let it go to waste,” Zhou said. “I’ve had a few small setbacks, small injuries and annoyances, but I finally got a solid week of training before this and I’m feeling better now. We’ll see how this week goes, but I’ve done my best to prepare.”

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Vincent Zhou performs in the men's free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.
(Lynn Hey / Associated Press)

To have a chance to pull this off safely, organizers placed skaters and coaches in isolation and banned spectators from the arena. “Creating a bubble, like the NBA, is really how a competition like this is possible,” said 2020 U.S. women’s silver medalist Mariah Bell, who trains in Irvine. “We’re just so fortunate that we have it, and it’s really exciting.”

Travel restrictions limited the entrants to mostly Americans and a few skaters who train in the United States but represent other countries. Four-time U.S. champion and two-time world champion Nathan Chen, who also trains in Irvine, leads the men’s field. The women’s event is scheduled to feature Bell, 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist Bradie Tennell, two-time U.S. champion and 2104 team bronze medalist Gracie Gold, and Starr Andrews of Los Angeles.

Ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who finished fourth at Pyeongchang, lead the ice dance field. Alexa Scimeca Knierim, who shared her third straight U.S. pairs title earlier this year with her husband Chris, will team with Brandon Frazier in the pairs event. Chris Knierim retired from the sport and now coaches his wife and her skating partner.

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The revamped format is just another change that will test skaters’ adaptability and patience. “It’s certainly not like any other Skate America or any other Grand Prix that any of us have done. But it’s a great opportunity to have something to look forward to and an opportunity to compete because next year is obviously very important, being the Olympic season,” Bell said. “So we want to make sure that we’re staying in competition form and mind-set during this waiting period.”

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Bell had experimented with a triple axel but shelved it. “Given the situation of where we are and that we knew of this competition about a month ago, my focus has really been just on preparing for this,” she said. “After this we’ll have a chunk of time, a few months, again, to train, so it’s definitely something that I’ll get back to work on. It’s an exciting time for ladies’ skating because we’re seeing so many more girls do them, and it’s cool to be a part of that era.”

For Zhou, keeping his passion and purpose alive are victories no matter how he performs this weekend. “I learned you don’t have to do two perfect programs with incredible content to feel accomplished and proud of yourself,” he said. “I started to not take anything for granted and really appreciate the little things more, the little steps, pieces of progress that you find yourself making every week. I learned to accept the baby steps as a more fundamental part of the process and that really helped me in getting going again after a lockdown.”


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