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Undergraduate Vincent Zhou takes second at figure skating U.S. championships

After nearly walking away from the sport, Zhou eyes Olympic medal in 2022

Vincent Zhou, who entered Brown with the Class of 2023 but has been on leave, captured a silver medal in the short program at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Jan. 17, qualifying him for the 2021 World Championships.

At 17 years old, Zhou was the youngest member of the United States Olympic team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, where he took sixth place in the free skate and became the first Olympic athlete to land the quadruple Lutz jump in the short program. He now eyes his first Olympic medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

Zhou began skating at the age of five. He played piano and a myriad of sports but chose to devote himself to the ice. Throughout his childhood, Zhou traveled all over the country to work with different coaches and transitioned to online school in 2008. He quickly rose to the top of the figure skating ranks and earned national titles in intermediate, novice and junior level competitions. At age 15, Zhou made his senior debut and achieved a top ten national standing. Despite constant travel, he excelled in his academic career and graduated from Connections Academy in 2017 as a National Merit Scholarship Program Commended Student. Zhou enjoyed another breakout year in 2018 as he qualified for his Olympic berth. 

In 2019, Zhou earned the bronze medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan. Months later, he enrolled at Brown and spent the fall of 2019 in Providence. Stuck between midterms and international competitions, Zhou chose academics, grew distant from the ice and almost hung up his skates. But over that winter break, Zhou connected with new coach Lee Barkell in Toronto who helped him get back on track. With only three weeks of preparation, he won his fifth medal at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. He recently earned the chance to return to the Olympic stage and represent the United States at the 2022 Beijing Games. For his international success and innumerable accolades on the ice, Zhou has been named The Herald’s Athlete of the Week.

Herald: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your training regimen?

Zhou: When lockdown happened, I flew to the United States to gain access to health insurance. I got stuck in Colorado Springs. It was difficult to do any on-ice training but I made sure to stay fit. One of my coaches found a little barn with a sheet of ice and someone who was willing to let me stay and practice on it. I could barely do anything but it was better than nothing. I got lucky because I was able to return the ice sooner than most people. 

Being stuck inside can be very depressing and have a negative impact on your mental health. Fortunately, Colorado Springs is at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and Pikes Peak so I was able to get outside and do some hiking. I love the mountains so it was a nice period of time off. After lockdown ended, I was still unable to cross the border to return to Canada so I decided to change my coaching situation. I parted ways with Lee Barkell on good terms, and now I will remain in Colorado Springs until the 2022 Olympic Games.

Where do you find motivation?

I know how much I'm capable of achieving. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with myself until I'm able to achieve that potential at the next Olympic Games. My ultimate goal is to medal at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Every day when I step in the rink, when I get on the plane, it is for the Olympics. My childhood dream … is what drives me to keep pushing to improve.

I have only competed in China once before, and that experience was really amazing. I have a very big fan base there so it's super exciting to return for the next Olympics. Beijing is my parents’ hometown and my grandparents still live there. So the Olympics will be close to home. It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to perform in front of so many people who support me. Beijing is such a meaningful location to have the biggest and most important competition of my career.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

One of the biggest struggles I've had in recent years is coming of age, becoming an adult and finding my place in the world. In some sports, athletes are pretty self-reliant but in other sports, the athlete can be heavily dependent on a parent to assist with various things and provide financial support. My case is the latter. My mom has been with me forever and if it weren't for her, I wouldn't be where I am.

It has been quite the journey of discovering myself, gaining independence and figuring out how to financially sustain myself. Skating is a very expensive sport. We don't receive assistance from the government, and U.S. Figure Skating is a nonprofit organization. Football and basketball players make millions of dollars but skaters do not. Skaters spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on equipment, ice time, lessons, fees, competition, coaching bills, travel and much more. If you're over 18 years old and your parents don't provide financial support, you have to pay for food and living expenses as well. I am covering my own college tuition because I don't qualify for scholarships. My dad works for Google, which (would seem to indicate that) we would have a lot of money, but we do not. My mom has not worked for a long time because she left her job to support my skating career. So we have a single-income family. And my sister has a very expensive college tuition as well because she goes to MIT. 

So in reality, we don't have much money. Over the past few years, trying to gain financial independence has been very difficult. That’s just a small part of becoming an adult and finding my place in the world. And that has been such a journey. Every year, I learn more about myself that I never even knew was possible. I'm really lucky to have these experiences at such a young age. I just turned 20. Time flies.

Is there an unseen burden of being an elite athlete? 

Everybody sees famous athletes surrounded by lights, cameras, attention, media, all that. They think, ‘Wow, what a wonderful life, it must be so awesome.’ But there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. People don't even see the tip of the iceberg. It's a crazy life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: A previous version of this article’s headline stated that Zhou won the figure skating world championships. In fact, he won the figure skating U.S. championships. The Herald regrets the error.


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