Zhou on comeback trail after injury, academic breakFormer U.S. junior champion to compete on JGP, U.S. senior circuit
After missing the last two seasons, Vincent Zhou is back on competitive ice, in a new place, with a new coach. The 2013 U.S. junior champion moved to Colorado Springs in early May to train with Tom Zakrajsek.
"The Colorado Springs system is a very energetic training environment," Zhou said in an email. "Coach Tom works very hard, just like his skaters, and he is the most organized coach I have ever seen. He probably puts more effort into theoretical and mental training than most others. He embraces new ideas and is willing to try out new training methods. ... Also, very importantly, he cares about my skating. He has a vision for my skating and a plan for me."
Zhou, 14, previously trained in California with Tammy Gambill. He was the 2011 U.S. intermediate champion, and also won the novice title in 2012. Zhou plans to compete on the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) circuit in the fall, but he'll be competing as a senior in the U.S.
"I understand it's going to be tough for my age, but the experience from competing with the best senior men in the country is more valuable than a medal at the junior level," he said.
Zhou missed the last two seasons, in part because of injury. He had a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, and he has a discoid meniscus, a rare anatomical variation. The discoid shape meant that the meniscus tear happened slowly, without sudden pain.
Zhou underwent surgery at the UCSF Orthopedic Institute in San Francisco. He was off the ice for four months and says he was completely healed after six months.
"It is my understanding he is 100 percent healed," Zakrajsek said. "When an athlete is young, the body heals quickly and thoroughly with few exceptions. What helps with an athlete coming back from an injury is communication. Vincent is an excellent communicator and follows through on his lessons with tremendous deliberate practice. At this time, I do not have to push him toward his goals. Because of this, I think managing his comeback will be easy."
The injury wasn't the only reason Zhou took a break from competing. He's an excellent student and had been attending high-level academic camps in Silicon Valley.
"Outside of skating, another me started to wake up," Zhou said. "In AP calculus class … the teacher told my mom, 'Your son is very sharp. He needs a special plan.' Then my mom sent me to A-Star math competition camp."
Zhou enjoyed the camp so much he started planning to return to regular school in the fall of 2014 to become "a picture-perfect academic." But right before school started, he realized he missed skating. His mom suggested that he skate recreationally, but Zhou thought he wouldn't be satisfied with that.
"I said, 'If I skate, I want to do my best; otherwise, I'm not going to do it,'" he said.
Zhou spent the fall skating at different rinks, trying to sort out what he wanted after such a long time away from training.
"It was disorienting, being off the ice so long, and I had to feel around a bit to find out where I wanted to stay," he said. "My mom asked me, 'Regardless of all other factors, who do you think has the best technique?' I replied without any hesitation, 'Tom.' Coach Tom is known for teaching jumps. I hope to get all the jumps I need as a senior. In addition to jumps, coach Tom's training offers a complete package. I hope, with him, I will be the best I can be."
With the decision made, Zhou and his mother moved to Colorado Springs.
"We are working to develop the whole package in Vincent," Zakrajsek said. "He has had excellent previous coaches -- Charlie Tickner, Tammy Gambill and Yuka Sato -- who have provided a solid foundation in so many ways. The key is to continue this development from the junior ranks into the senior ranks. Obviously, on the technical side, teaching him the skid for his triple axel development and how to land his quadruple salchow will help him become a competitive junior skater on the international level."
In Colorado, Zhou will also work with Becky Calvin, Janet Champion and Becky Bradley on spins as well as Catarina Lindgren (polishing programs) and Anna Weslin (ballet). Yuka Sato choreographed Zhou's short program, to "Crystallize" by Lindsey Stirling. Justin Dillon created his new Godfather free skate.
Zhou began his return to competition with a couple of clean programs at the Santa Fe Skatefest in May. He didn't attempt a triple axel or a quadruple jump, but he said it was a good experience.
"I'm glad I didn't lose my clean program streak at competitions," Zhou said. "I skated two junior-level programs with an extra step sequence for senior, and my score was over 200. Competing again felt good, although it was a bit nerve-racking because I hadn't competed in a while."
Next up for Zhou will be the Broadmoor Open at the end of June.
Zhou says he is looking forward to training at Colorado's altitude. He also hopes to take advantage of outdoor activities like hiking and rafting. He'll continue his studies, aiming to follow in Rachael Flatt's footsteps of academic excellent at Cheyenne Mountain High School. Zhou has skipped two grades, so he'll enter high school as a junior in the fall.
"Every time I visit back home, my dad brings me to the Google headquarters -- his workplace -- to let me feel the academic, technologic spirit of Silicon Valley," he said.
Zhou is definitely planning on going to college in the future, and he plans to balance school and skating as he continues his competitive career.
"I am going to settle down at Cheyenne Mountain High, which offers all the courses required to go to a good college," he said. "I can sit in school for three periods, come out to skate, go back to school for a couple more periods, then go back to the rink to train more. There are not many other places that can give me a better balance of skating and school."
On the ice, Zhou looks to join an impressive crop of rising young U.S. skaters, including 16-year-old Nathan Chen and 2015 junior champ Andrew Torgashev, who turned 14 in late May. Chen is already competing in the U.S. senior ranks, and Torgashev is considering it for next season.
Zakrajsek says he sees great potential in Zhou's future.
"Time will tell," he said. "He has time on his side."