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Skate it again, Zhou! 12-year-old dominates juniors

Omori brings home the silver; Chen battles through illness to take bronze

An ecstatic Vincent Zhou crushed the junior men's competition by 16 points.
An ecstatic Vincent Zhou crushed the junior men's competition by 16 points. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2013) - Vincent Zhou performed his free skate to music from Casablanca, and no matter how much time goes by, the 12-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., will never forget it.

"That was the skate of my life," Zhou said. "I was so happy out there. I just felt incredible. I can barely describe it."

Bogart sported a white dinner jacket, but Zhou chose to wear a black tuxedo as he reeled off seven triple jumps in his sparkling routine, including a triple flip-double toe-double loop combination and triple Lutz-triple toe (the toe was under-rotated).

As choreographed by Justin Dillon, the program is crammed with intricate steps and transitions, as well as some nifty spins. Through it all, the diminutive dynamo barely put a foot wrong, amassing 138.95 points and finishing with an eye-popping total of 205.26.

"This is my personal best [score] by six points," said Zhou, who gives his height as 4 feet, 10 inches. "I got 199 at regionals, and I was like, 'What's wrong with me? I can't get over 200.' So this is a huge accomplishment for me, and I'm very proud. It will give me a lot of confidence in myself and it's amazing."

Relishing his moments in the spotlight, Zhou waved to the crowd and donned a black top hat in the kiss and cry.

"He is a little pistol. He always keeps me very entertained and on my toes," his coach, Tammy Gambill, said. "He skates like this on a daily basis, and for him to come out here and do it under pressure, I'm very proud."

Gambill credits a healthy work ethic for her pupil's success.

"He's always up for the challenge. He is trying to be better than the senior men," she said. "He is always the first one there in the morning, out in the dark warming up in the parking lot before the rink is even open."

Dillon chose Casablanca as an age-appropriate vehicle to show off Zhou's still-budding maturity.

"Vincent won intermediate, he won novice, and it's time to grow up a little bit, but you don't want to leave the nursery when you're only 12 years old," he said. "I wanted to pick something where he could be a little gentleman, a little boy in his dad's suit. He's starting to move up the ranks to be a top competitor, but he's still a little boy."

Zhou's training partner, Shotaro Omori, led after the short program, but triple Axel trouble -- he fell on his first attempt and popped his second into a single -- doomed his title changes. He placed second in the free skate and second overall with 189.25 points.

"In practice, I know I can do all of these elements just fine; I just need a little bit more practice and confidence so I can do it [in competition]," Omori, 17, said. "I was able to focus well in the short, but today, I was really nervous. I tried to focus on what I had to do.

"[This event] was really a step forward for me. At sectionals, I missed all three of my triple Axels, and here I did it in the short."

Gambill is proud of her student's fighting spirit.

"The first Axel I thought went up pretty well, and I thought he had it, but it kind of got away from him," Gambill said. "The second one, he was a bit cautious. Actually, he added a triple toe at the end of the program that was not planned, and I was really pleased with that. He was going to try to get as many points as he could."

Battling a stomach virus, defending U.S. junior champion Nathan Chen fell on the second jump of a triple flip-triple toe combination and turned several other intended triples into doubles. He placed fourth in the free and third overall with 181.31 points.

"I could have done better, but due to my setbacks -- I've been sick the past couple of days and I've had injury after injury -- I think I pulled off basically what I was going for," the 13-year-old said.

In September, Chen hit a triple Axel in his short program and free skate at JGP Austria, contributing to a monster 222-point score. Chen withdrew from his second JGP due to a lower leg injury, and he was too weakened by illness to try the jump in Omaha.

"The past two weeks, I was landing triple Axels, and then I got sick," Chen said. "I just thought it would be a smarter idea to pull back and try to do everything I could do in the moment and go from there."

Chen's coach, Rafael Arutunian, plans to mend the skater's workaholic tendencies to help prevent future injuries.

"If you want to get special results, which he got at the beginning of the season, it takes a lot of training," Arutunian said. "His body could not handle that much; he was going too far. Maybe we have to go a little slower, but, as usual, if you want to reach an incredible result, that's what it takes.

"Maybe next time he will be a little more careful about how much time he spends on the ice. This season will give him more experience. He is so motivated; he has the heart of a champion. If you follow history, Evan [Lysacek], [Evgeni] Plushenko, [Alexei] Yagudin, that's what it takes."

New Yorker Jimmy Ma, who is coached by 1981 world champion Elaine Zayak and Steven Rice, hit five triples, including two triple Lutz combinations, to place fourth.