“Skaters have ONE chance. That’s it. If we blow it, it’s over.” That’s the pressure pro figure skater Vincent Zhou faces. Pro athletes give tons of interviews over the years, many offering the standard replies of giving it their all and being grateful for the wins. For Zhou, the two-time Olympian lays it all out on the table, the good and the bad. I found his honesty and candidness refreshing. He wasn’t afraid to talk about his struggles and frustrations, along with his hopes and dreams. He’s a proud Chinese-American who could have given up at any point—and almost did, in fact—but skating kept him going.
The Sport that Stuck
Zhou’s parents did things a bit differently. Being immigrants from Beijing, China, where emphasis was usually on academics, deviating into sports was a bit unconventional. But their young son had lots of energy, so his parents encouraged him to channel it into something physical. By the time he was 8 years old, Zhou had tried many sports like soccer, basketball, and ice skating.
Looking back years later, he’s had time to reflect on this question: Why was skating the sport that stuck?
“Skating, from the start, takes long hours and commitment,” Zhou said. “I was waking up at 4 a.m. When you have that time commitment, it turns you off right away or it cements itself in your mind as part of your routine. I got used to that lifestyle.”
Plus, the learning curve kept him engaged. He’d reach one skating milestone, then train to reach the next. Another draw was the individuality of skating. Just him, his skates, and the ice.
“Other sports were highly dependent on teammates,” he said. “In skating the only thing holding me back was myself.”
At eight years old, Zhou’s mom asked him to choose one sport.
“I told her, ‘my heart is in skating,’” he said.
And while he was the first in his family to be a skater, but as it turns out, DNA was on his side. His small frame allowed him to rotate fast in the air, and his long, thin limbs created good lines. As he explained, skating is an interesting balance between functionality and aesthetics.
Zhou’s parents continued on the unconventional path. When he was just 8 years old, his mom quit her job and the two moved from California to train in other parts of the country.
“It was a leap of faith. I think what my mom saw in me was passion. We knew I’d only make it to where I am now is if we put in all the time and effort and money into this.”
His passion for the sport accelerated by watching the Olympics and other pro skaters. He recalls watching the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles thinking, “’That’s going to be me someday.’
From that point forward, I couldn’t be stopped. Nothing was enough for little ambitious Vincent.”
The future wasn’t always bright, however. Times would come when he would think about hanging up his skates.
The Roller Coaster Ride of Skating
Winning his first national at 10 years old solidified that skating was a good choice for Zhou. Then he won three more. Like many athletes, however, long hours of training and competition resulted in injury. The injury quickly derailed his momentum. Things could have taken a bad turn that early in his career.
“It took me out of competition for two years,” he said. “I almost quit skating and moved back to northern California to focus on academics.” Going through puberty at the time, his mind was all over the place. Outside influences and inner turmoil were at war.
Thankfully, fate and a little luck brought him back to skating. His parents had a big influence on that outcome.
“The way we do things is a little unconventional, trying things ourselves and taking risks and seeing what works,” he said. “The bigger the risk the bigger the reward. Part of what’s driven my success is high risk balanced with high ambition, and lots of smart minds. My parents are very smart. Lots of smart minds thinking about how to tackle these challenges.”
The risk and the training paid off. Over the coming years, a myriad of his accomplishments: three Grand Prix Series medals, U.S. intermediate champ 2011, U.S. novice champ 2012, U.S. junior champ 2013, junior world champ 2017, U.S. silver medalist 2017, 2019, 2021, U.S. bronze medalist 2018, 2022, Olympian 2018, 2022, World Team Trophy Champ 2019, Four Continents bronze medalist 2019, World bronze medalist 2019, 2022, U.S. pewter medalist 2020, Olympic Team Event silver medalist 2022. To name a few.
Add to that list the fact that Zhou became the first figure skater to land the quadruple Lutz in any Olympic games. He did it at the 2018 Olympics at just 17 years old. It is one of the most difficult jumps for figure skaters.
Even more impressive was, that was during his Olympic debut. Leading up to qualifying for the Olympic team, he was coming off the worst performance in international he had ever had. He had to reset and rededicate himself. Five men were competing for three spots and he wanted on.
“I was the least experienced, the least qualified and I earned a spot with how I competed at nationals,” he said.
He was young, inexperienced at that event, and could have easily been overlooked. Which is why he decided he needed a highly technical program to take advantage of nabbing as many points as possible. He did it and got in 6th place, about 10 spots higher than most expected him to end up.
“I performed how I dreamed. It was the most emotional and greatest feeling of my life.”
So then, he thought surely success would come easier now. The ups and downs of skating would switch to being mostly ups—right? After all, he performed a career-high free skate to music from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (earning him bronze at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships). The song, and his career as whole, paid homage to his parents and Chinese heritage. Another highlight of his life.
But the highs wouldn’t stay that way for long. Judges often reviewed and devalued his technical elements, causing public perception that his jumps had errors. That caused scrutiny at every event after the judges’ review.
“All of a sudden, so many of my jumps had that error, even if they didn’t. I had unfair calls.”
It was a definitive low, and it caused doubts to creep in. Even people online were roasting him. But again, Zhou didn’t quit the sport. In fact, he trained harder. He made huge strides and improved his skills. While there is a lot pro athletes can’t control, they can control their drive and training.
“People on the internet said it’s not possible… then I went ahead and won worlds. That was one of the best moments of my career.”
Rising Above It All
Zhou knows he can’t be a competitive skater forever, but he’s decided skating will be part of his life in one way or another. Still, while the sport is key in his life, academics still played a part. In 2019 he attended Brown University on campus, but found that balancing skating with school was incredibly challenging.
“I ended up stepping away from skating then. I almost quit at one point. Somebody who is just starting to find their independence as an adult and living away from their parents for the first time, it was me asserting, this is my life now. These are my decisions. It was beyond imaginable how difficult mentally that was for me.”
Again, he could have given up. But after Christmas he had a few weeks until US Nationals. He couldn’t let the event pass without giving it a go. So, he spent three weeks training and in January 2020 earned a fourth-place medal.
“That was a personal victory for me because I skated two clean programs,” he said. “That was a huge success after going through a turbulent period of personal growth. That moment was planting the first seed for my comeback to climbing the highest level in skating.”
Then, of course, just a short time later the pandemic started, shutting down everything. Worlds was canceled only a few weeks before the event. Athletes everywhere wondered what the future held. When a person’s whole career centers around competition, and competitions can’t be held, what will happen now?
“I had a couple of months off,” he said. “It was a time of self-reflection. Then I got back on the ice and started to prepare for the next Olympics.” In early 2022, the Olympics were being held in Beijing, which for Zhou was like going to his second home—much of his extended family lives there. He planned to again skate to Crouching Tiger, but unfortunately tested positive for COVID. Still, he earned a silver medal with the U.S. team.
That’s the hardest part of skating—they have just a small period of time to prove themselves.
“Skaters have ONE chance. That’s it. If we blow it, it’s over. The pressure is insane. I dedicate my entire life to training and honing my physical and mental capabilities and trying to put everything together for one shot at success.”
Years and years of training come down to just small moments. Nothing has been given to him—he’s had to earn it. While naysayers judge him, Zhou tries to keep a good perspective. One quote he keeps in mind is “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The final lines give him chills every time. He’s literally that man in the arena, and this quote gives him a lot of hope and perspective.
“Every day I step into the rink, my standard for myself is to put it all out there and work on myself as much as I can so I can show up at the biggest athletic stage in the world and show everyone what I’m capable of and what I can achieve.”
His advice to others looking to achieve something big? Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t ever doubt yourself or your ability. Push past doubt and look at the big picture.
“When I lose that belief in myself it all comes crashing down. I do my best to go into the rink every day and keep that fire burning.”