When Vincent Zhou ’26 tested positive for COVID-19 just a day before he would have competed in the men’s figure skating individual competitions, his first reaction was to think, “Okay, this is happening.”
“It doesn't exactly process,” he said in an interview with The Herald. “You read the words, you understand the words and you understand that this is your reality,” but the shock remains.
Zhou — a 2018 Olympian who traveled to China for the 2022 Olympics — tested positive for COVID-19 after competing in just one ice skating event. But he is more than this: He is a world-class athlete, a Brown student and a skater who hopes to give back to the sport that has been central to his life.
A lifetime of preparation
Zhou originally arrived in Providence in the fall of 2019, joining the Brown community as a member of the class of 2023. But trying to balance academics, college student life and training to compete at a high level proved a daunting task. During that semester, Zhou exclusively took classes that met Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the other four days of the week dedicated to training.
“I was living with a foot in each world, and it was very hard to focus fully on succeeding in both” skating and academics, he said. “The mental switch was extremely difficult.”
Zhou has been on leave since the conclusion of the fall 2019 semester to focus on training and competing, though he plans to return to the University this fall. He has spent much of the time since he left Brown training in Colorado Springs, CO.
Zhou began figure skating as a young child and rapidly excelled, he said. “I was very successful and (able to) improve very quickly as a young skater.”
But his development would soon hit a roadblock: At the age of 12, complications from surgery to correct an injury prevented Zhou from being able to compete for about two years. The injury “kind of put a stop to my rapid growth,” he said. “I kind of had to start from square one when I was 14 or 15.”
Overcoming the struggles of these years of training had a formative impact on Zhou as a skater, he said. “I learned what it meant to chase my dreams and make sacrifices and do the gritty hard work before expecting results.”
Zhou bounced back from his injuries and became the youngest member of Team USA to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He described his 2018 experience as “like being a kid in a LEGO Store.”
There “was just shiny stuff everywhere,” he said. “It was a crazy experience, and I'm glad I got to experience an Olympics free of COVID because it was definitely different this past time around.”
Zhou emphasized the importance of “finding the right training environment and finding the right motivation,” both for recovering from his injury and preparing for the 2022 Olympics. “I have my fair share of swings no matter where I train, but in Colorado Springs I really found a productive and inspiring environment,” he said. “Coupled with my own desire to make the Olympic team (in) 2022, I really gave it everything.”
Zhou also credits his teammates in helping him achieve his maximum potential as an athlete. “We all push each other,” he said. “I'm grateful to have that level of competition (and) to have teammates like that because without (them), the sport wouldn't be pushed forward in (the) way it is.”
More than an athlete
Zhou aims to make the most out of every experience he has. “Every single year, the different challenges and successes and failures that I go through help me grow as an athlete and as a person,” he said.
Still, he emphasized that trying to manage both the stress of competing and life’s general stressors would be difficult for anyone, no matter who they are.
“Even for the best skater in the world, (it) is a lot more difficult than most people might think,” he said. “I've had struggles with injuries, personal struggles, COVID struggles, relationship struggles (and) coaching struggles. The list goes on and on, but all I can do is apply this growth mindset.”
“From every experience, whether good or bad, there's always something (we can use) to grow as a character or an athlete or a human being,” he added. “I take that mindset to every single struggle that I go through, and, as a result, I find myself coming out of situations with a better mindset. I think that definitely helps me manage the stress of” being a skater at this high level.
Even for a world-class athlete like Zhou, the “grass is always greener” mentality can be difficult to escape. “A lot of the time I catch myself thinking, ‘Oh, it would be so nice if I didn't have to skate today.’ Normal people don't know the struggles” of being an Olympic figure skater, he said.
“But then I realize everybody's going through stuff, and if I were in their shoes, I would envy myself,” Zhou said. “That kind of helps me. I like to look at things from different perspectives.”
Mental health awareness is an important issue for Zhou, who has seen it become a more widely-discussed topic in recent years. “Before there was a big social media awareness movement for mental health, nobody ever really talked about it,” he said. “There's no reason mental health shouldn't be just as important, if not more important, than physical health.”
He explained that figure skating is just as — if not more — grueling as other sports.
“I can assure you from thousands of hours of training, it is not glitter and fancy outfits at all,” Zhou said. “It's blood, sweat and tears just like any other physical activity that you might consider a sport.”
“In a lot of sports, it's all about being the fastest or jumping the highest or being the strongest — basically, the champion is whoever can reach their maximum physical potential,” he added. “I would contend that skating is harder, because you (have) to do all that while making it look good.”
“So much to be grateful for”
Heading into the 2022 Olympics, Zhou was confident in himself, but he still hoped to remain grounded. “I was trying to just do my thing and skate with as little pressure on myself as possible,” he said. “I was running great programs and other practice sessions and just trying to have a good experience.”
Just a day before his positive COVID-19 test, Zhou competed in the team skate competition as part of a Team USA mens’ group that earned a silver medal. “I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity to compete on Olympic ice,” he said. “If my positive test had happened one day earlier, I wouldn’t have had that chance.”
While the 2022 Olympics were difficult for him, Zhou is trying to focus on the positives and work through the negatives. “There's so much to be grateful for (from) my experience at the Olympics,” he said. “I know there was a lot of bad in there, but dwelling on that isn't going to help me be in a good spot mentally.”
Looking to the future
Zhou’s next competition will be the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships, which will be in France at the end of March. Zhou is excited to be able to compete again, but he doesn’t see it as an opportunity for redemption. “I don't really want to put that sort of pressure on myself,” he said. “That's not a helpful way to think of it.”
“You could see it as the opportunity that I didn't get at the Olympics,” he added. “I think (that) is a better way of framing it.”
Right now, Zhou is excited to return to Brown and focus on his college experience.
“This time, I'm looking forward to being able to dedicate all my time and energy into one thing,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being able to fully experience and enjoy the environment because I know that Brown is an amazing school (with a) beautiful campus and lots of amazing people.”
He added that, after his grueling 2019 fall semester, he is also excited to be able to take classes on a more normal schedule.
Zhou is open to possibly competing at the Olympics again in 2026, but preparing while also being a student at Brown would be challenging. “If I do go for 2026, it'll be very difficult to dedicate all my time to training,” he said.
No matter what happens in 2026, Zhou hopes to stay involved with figure skating for the rest of his life, be it as a skater who performs in shows, a coach or some other form. Ultimately, his goal is to give back to figure skating and help it grow in the United States.
Zhou hopes to study business and eventually start a sports consulting or management business, he said. “All the knowledge and experience I have in not just skating, but (in) athletics in general is too valuable to just be put aside for a different career in the future.”
“I find inspiration in thinking of how to develop the next generation,” Zhou said, “and (in) what it takes to create not just one great skater here and there, but many great skaters representing the U.S.”
Peter Swope is the senior editor of digital engagement for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. He previously served as a Sports section editor and has also written stories for University News. Peter is a junior from New Jersey studying history.