Ice Network

Creating the program: Zhou sets ambitious goal

Skater, coaches aim for new free skate to include record-tying six quads
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Drew Meekins said student Vincent Zhou is working just as hard to improve his components as he is to perfect his jumps. -courtesy of Drew Meekins

This article is the third in a series that follows Vincent Zhou as he creates his free skate for the 2017-18 season.

Once the season ends, skaters set out to get the choreography done for their new programs as early as is convenient, usually sometime in the spring.

Then the real work begins.

After spending a week with choreographer Charlie White in May, Vincent Zhou started training his Romeo + Juliet free skate in earnest.

"It's a long process," Zhou said by phone last week. "First, we train the program without jumps, just making sure that I have the choreography down, that I know what I'm doing, making sure the transitions flow smoothly and the composition of the program is good."

Drew Meekins, who served as Zhou's choreographer before becoming one of his coaches, brings his recent experience as a competitive skater to the process.

"The first part of executing choreography well is knowing what it is!" Meekins said. "It takes a while to build the memory of how deep a certain edge should be, the timing of a movement, where a pattern goes. All of those things are first developed through a lot of repetition."

After a few days running the choreography, Zhou started doing the program with just double jumps and a few triples.

"Even a month in, I wasn't doing the program with all the quads," he said.

If all goes according to plan, the finished program will have basically the same jump content as the historic free skate Nathan Chen attempted at last season's world championships, with six quads and a triple axel.

"Six quads is the very ambitious goal that would be incredible if I could execute it well," Zhou said. "I'm going to be improving all season, but I'm not going to be foolish -- I'm going to compete smart and do what I've trained so that I don't take unnecessary risks."

"I want him to build gradually and slowly so he can feel confident that he can do the program fully, including the artistic side and the passion of the program," said Tammy Gambill, another of Zhou's coaches.

At his training home in Colorado Springs, Zhou runs the program all the way through once each day. Apart from that, he and his team work on sections, gradually getting the difficult quad jumps in place. At first, a section might only be the transitions in and out of one quad. Eventually, Zhou might do a section with two or three quads.

"When I wasn't training the choreography, I started by practicing the entries into the quads with actual quads, to prepare myself for putting them in the program," Zhou said. "Now, it's going very well. I've been surprising myself a little in training by pulling off some quads later in the program that I didn't think I could do."

After doing sections with two or three quads, Meekins had Zhou run the program with the "easier" quads and the triple axels in place. Next, they added the quad lutz, and finally the quad flip, the newest quadruple jump for Zhou.

"A huge test of 'doing a quad' is actually integrating it into the program," noted coach Tom Zakrajsek, who oversees Zhou's jump technique. "As you can see from watching practices, many men can do a quad or more than one quad, but the proof is in the actual completion of the quad in both the short and long program under pressure on a consistent basis." 

A program, of course, is more than just jumps. Zhou is working as hard, or harder, on the components side of his skating as he is on the technical side.

"I work with Drew every day on this program, on the emotion of it," Zhou said. "We put lots of time into this. When you're training so many quads, it's very difficult to keep doing them for hours. The rest of the time we have goes into training the choreography."

"Every day, the majority of lessons are on building his component score, working on choreography but also working on skating skills, dance and movement," Meekins said. "He's known as a jumper, and he has goals of being one of the best jumpers the sport has ever seen, but that's not his only goal. It's really important to him to be the full package."

Zhou and Meekins send videos to Gambill, who's based in Southern California, so she can stay updated. Zhou has also enlisted one of the greatest ice artists of all time to help: Christopher Dean.

"I see a similarity between Chris and Charlie, both ice dancers and Olympic champions, and I felt like Chris could help Vincent maintain Charlie's vision," Meekins said. "They both move with this beautiful, elegant but masculine style. I thought that really suited the nature of the character, and also of the choreography."

Zhou will debut the program Saturday at Skate Detroit, and then will show it again at the Philadelphia Summer Championships in early August. In between, the skater will spend a week in Michigan working with White and Marina Zoueva on choreography and components. Gambill won't be in Detroit, but she will see the program in person in Philadelphia.

Meekins said there are two goals for these summer competitions: to put the new programs out in public and show off all the hard work Zhou has done over the past few months, and for Zhou to get experience with the new elements, regardless of the outcome.

"It's always a little bit different in competitions. You see things put out there, and you get an eye on how he reacts in competition mode," Gambill said. "Is he feeling this part of the program? Is he comfortable with this jump here? Can he still put the passion in the program?"

White will get his first look at the program in Detroit, and he is confident that the skater will deliver.

He said, "Vincent's ability to go from choreography into these jumps is astounding. It's pretty ridiculous."