Ice Network

Thoughtful Zhou has big things planned for future

U.S. bronze medalist considering going for six-quad free skate next year
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Vincent Zhou made a name for himself in PyeongChang as much for his skating as for the incredibly thoughtful answers he gave the press. -Getty Images

The 2018 Olympic Winter Games taught us a lot about Vincent Zhou.

He's confident, ambitious and unafraid to do things his own, and sometimes unorthodox, way. He likes to parry with the press and has no problem standing by his convictions, even though he's only 17. And he has plans -- big plans.

We'll get a full dose of Zhou's ambition at the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships, which kick off in Milan, Italy, on Wednesday. In PyeongChang, a five-quad free skate vaulted the U.S. bronze medalist from 12th after the short program to sixth overall. Add two triple axels, and his technical element score (112.24 points) was second only to that of Nathan Chen -- and he sees no reason to back off now.

"There's not much that will stop me, except I need to be healthy and smart about what I'm doing to my body," Zhou said before leaving for Milan. "My plan is to do five quads at upcoming worlds, same as Olympics, because I've had success with it."

Ambition is nothing new to the Bay Area teen. Longtime coach Tammy Gambill, who now shares coaching duties with Tom Zakrajsek and Christy Krall (more about that later), remembers Zhou as always trying to keep up with his training partners, even when he was a precocious 11-year-old novice champion and they were in their early 20s.

"He won't back down," said Gambill, who trains her skaters in Riverside, California. "That's just who he is. When he was younger, I had to hold him back sometimes. He's comfortable trying big things."

Opportunity beckons in Milan. Two of the skaters who placed above Zhou in PyeongChang, Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, will not compete. Chen, Japan's Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin of China will, but depending on how the quads fall, the podium is within Zhou's sight.

"I'm just going to tell myself, like I did at the Olympics, 'This is just another competition, you've done this in training so many times, you're 100 percent capable of doing this,'" Zhou said. "That's the kind of self-talk I want."

Zhou thinks he's in top condition for Milan, thanks to the time he's spent at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), where he's been living and training for much of the past year.

"I've been working with my OTC trainer a lot on my glute and trunk stability, and my landing mechanics, and it's been helping me a lot," he said. "But the off-ice training will only go so far when you're doing five quads and two triple axels, which is almost incomprehensible, even to me sometimes. But then the music turns on, and you settle into a rhythm and you feel comfortable after you've done it awhile."

It takes a coaching village to put Zhou's programs into practice. The skater has trained with Gambill since he was 8, and he has also worked with Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs for several seasons. Krall, who coaches at the Broadmoor World Arena along with Zakrajsek, was added to the team mid-season.

"Tom is an incredible technician, and he is really great at training my programs," Zhou said. "I would say Christy also works with me on the program, and choreography and spins, too. She has stroking exercises of her own. She basically does everything with me, and she's been instrumental since I took her on as part of my team.

"Tammy has been coming (to Colorado Springs) on some weekends and seeing my simulations and doing some work on everything, and of course she comes with me to competitions.

"Everyone plays their part."

You might think technique corrections could get confusing, but Zhou says the approach works well for him.

"I feel the team has come together really well and there is no conflict of technique and everyone is communicating really well," he said. "I'm incredibly thankful to have such a team, with so much coaching ability in all aspects of skating, on my side."

Zhou seems equally comfortable handling the press. In PyeongChang, reporters peppered him with endless questions about not only quads but his Chinese-American heritage: How his parents, Fei Ge and Max, immigrated from China in 1992 and became software engineers in the Bay Area, and how his mom sacrificed her career to dedicate herself to Vincent's skating.

"I competed at the Olympics, and my parents came from China -- (those are) the bare facts," Zhou said. "It is true they came here with almost nothing and passed on their work ethic and values to me. That's very real to me, and that's why I was comfortable talking about it."

Zhou calls himself an "existential contemplator" on his Twitter page, and he lives the role: As long as it's in the moment and authentic, it's OK with him.

"If you speak the facts, it's hard to argue against that, so that's what I tried to do (in PyeongChang)," he said.

"He likes the attention, he likes getting talked about in the media, within reason of course," Gambill said. "He can handle the big stage."

There are rumblings the International Skating Union may move to limit the number of quads in a program, with that decision perhaps coming at the 57th Ordinary ISU Congress in June. If that does not come to pass, Zhou thinks he may attempt six quads in a free skate as soon as the middle of next season. It's a feat, he said, he has accomplished in practice.

"I wouldn't push myself to do six right away," he said. "For choreography next season, we're looking to have more intricate programs, which will make the quads harder to do. ... I hope to have a more solid, consistent season than I had (in 2017-18), and that will come with experience."

Jeffrey Buttle, who choreographed Zhou's free skate to "Come What May," thinks the skater will naturally grow as a performer.

"It's an ambitious thing for him to do [five quads] at such an early age, but I can see the advantages for going for that kind of tech content now," Buttle said. "He will only mature and get a better understanding of what he needs in between the elements, and from this point on, he can only get better at performing."

Zhou thinks joining select stops on the Stars on Ice tour, which starts April 6, will further hone his musicality and expression.

"In the (competitive) program, a lot is focused to the judging panel," he said. "It's going to be great getting comfortable on the ice and smiling and expressing myself to the audience. It's going to help me skate more openly in my programs."

Next season will bring another challenge: continuing his education. Zhou completed high school at age 16 and took the Olympic season as a "gap year." College now beckons, either this summer or fall.

"I wouldn't say I am 100 percent looking forward to it, but it is necessary to my future," Zhou said. "It would be best for my skating to take online courses, but Chinese parents have a huge academic influence, and I think my mom wants me to take in-person, in-classroom classes. I will jump off that bridge when I get to it."

He pauses for a few seconds, then shifts back into positive self-talk.

"I will get through it somehow, " he said.