The stars that impress us at the World and Olympic stage today all have started out at the junior level and began their journey with the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating series. One of them is Vincent Zhou (USA), who claimed the ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships title in 2017. The next season, he made the Olympic team and finished a respectable 6th in PyeongChang. In 2019, Zhou claimed the bronze medal at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships and the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Vincent remembers his debut at the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Bratislava (SVK) in 2015 very vividly. “I remember being so excited to finally be at a big international competition and seeing all the boys from the other countries and wondering if I'd be competing with those same people for a long time while trying to achieve my dreams of reaching the world podium level. When I scored 68 points in the Short Program and then landed my first quad Salchow in the Free Skate and got silver, I was so proud of myself for a successful Junior Grand Prix debut,” he said.
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating (SVK) 2015©International Skating Union (ISU)
At the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating, the skater stepped on to the major international stage for the first time. Getting there has been an important goal for him when he was very young. “Ever since I was young, I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be successful. I admired every skater who competed at Junior Grand Prixs. I watched them all and followed the results almost religiously. To finally be assigned to the Junior Grand Prix and compete on the big stage was like stepping into bigger shoes and was the first step in competing and making my way to even bigger stages like Worlds and the Olympics,” the now 19-year-old shared.
Vincent Zhou (USA), Dimitry Aliev (RUS) and Ivan Pavlov (UKR) at the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating (AUT) 2015©International Skating Union (ISU)
In fall 2015, the American picked up another silver medal in his second ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Linz (AUT) and qualified for the Final in Barcelona (ESP). “I was watching the seventh Junior Grand Prix livestream under my desk at school because whether or not I'd make the final depended on the results of that last JGP,” Vincent recalled. “I had calculated it out down to the exact placements and scores of the skaters that I'd need in order to qualify. When the skaters finished and I found out I qualified, class wasn't over yet and I had to silently celebrate. It felt like my chest was about to burst with happiness but I could only sit there and hide my excitement. I was super proud to qualify for the Final in my first year competing internationally - plus, qualifying meant I would get to see my idols compete at the senior level live. I got to see Yuzu (Yuzuru Hanyu, JPN), Shoma (Uno, JPN), Boyang (Jin, CHN), Javi (Javier Fernandez, ESP), and Patrick (Chan, CAN) live, and it was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Yuzu set the world record and everybody skated incredible, plus the audience was crazy. Definitely, the best live introduction to world level competition ever,” Zhou said about participating in the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final.
Vincent went on to compete at his first ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2016 in Debrecen (HUN). “My first World Junior Championship was a great learning experience. I ended up in the top five and even though I didn't skate to the best of my ability, I felt like I belonged there, and I got a great taste of sense in terms of asking myself what I need to do to win the next year,” he noted.
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating (CHN) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
Indeed, a year later the ambitious skater took the title in Taipei City (TPE), but it was not an easy task. “The 2016/17 season was difficult for me. All my seasons since then have been rollercoaster stories, but this one started it all. After my first Junior Grand Prix (in Yokohama, JPN), I had to get a new Free Skating because the current one wasn't working well. I only had one week to choreograph it before the next Junior Grand Prix (in Tallinn, EST) and I didn't even have time to get a temporary new costume, but I still ended up winning medals at both Junior Grand Prixs. However, I had an injured hip and could not perform my maxim technical content at either Junior Grand Prix, which caused me to not qualify for the Final and also be heavily overlooked for the title at the World Junior Championships. Most people had their eyes on other skaters to win. But in the time that others were in the spotlight at the Final, I kept my head down and focused on recovery and working extremely hard to build my content to the maximum of its potential. Then, I suddenly showed up in Taipei and surprised everyone with a quad Lutz and two quad Salchows in the free and set a massive world record (for Juniors). That was the first leap in the underdog story of my career,” Vincent shared.
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Words can't describe the feeling. As I was in my program, all I could think was "is this really happening?" I am in awe of the competition tonight and I feel so honored to be the Junior World Champion. It's a great feeling to be rewarded with something that I have been working hard for all season. And of course, it wouldn't have been possible without my supportive team of coaches, doctors, friends, trainers, and family--most of all my mother, who has been and always is there for me. Thank you so much.
While Zhou had proven his talent and ability at the junior stage, it was not a given to get on to the Olympic and World team just a year later with the strong competition inside the USA.
“The Olympics were the year following 2017 World Junior Championships and I knew that in order to even have a small chance of making the team, I had to succeed at World Juniors,” Vincent pointed out. “In order to get myself considered in other people's eyes as potential Olympic material, I had to execute three quads, including the quad Lutz, in the long. So my success at the World Junior Championships, like I said, was the first leap in my underdog Olympic story. Actually, prior to the 2016/17 season, I thought 2018 Olympics would be impossible. However, with my hunger and drive to succeed at the Junior level, I found myself getting closer and closer to potential Olympic team level.”
The young skater had a plan: “I reasoned that if I could score 258 in Juniors and do a quad Lutz, and if I also developed my quad flip and quad toe (which I could already do in the 2016/17 season) to be good enough to do in a program, I could qualify for the Olympic team. But, it would be a long shot and would take an unbelievable amount of drive and hard work. So that's exactly what I did. And I failed many times during the 2017/18 season trying to reach for the Olympic team slot. I had two of the worst programs of my life at the Grand Prix France (Grenoble) two months prior to Nationals and it felt like the greatest dream of my life, which had always seemed impossible but suddenly turned into something barely attainable, came crashing down as quickly as it had come into my grasp. I went back home desperate to try and recover the dream. I reevaluated my coaching situation and training methods and started building up from zero again. When Nationals came around, there were five men (Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, me, Jason Brown, Max Aaron) competing for three slots. And then Ross Miner surprised everyone and came in second. However, everyone still had a stronger body of work argument than me. I remember skating first in the Free Skating and watching the men after me, silently praying that what I did was enough to make the team. I could barely breathe. Some of the men, who had more experience and qualifications for the team than me, made costly mistakes, and then I realized I had a chance. A very small chance, but still there. For hours after the event, I waited, hardly daring to say a single word, for a text which I didn't know would come or not. The text that would announce to me my selection for the team. And at 12:31 am, it finally came, and that was possibly the greatest single moment of my life. The countless nights of lying awake staring at the ceiling, hoping and praying for a miracle, the time spent in the gym after closing hours, knowing that I had to do more, I had to get stronger, shaking off the sweat and fatigue to get one more rep in, telling myself that that extra rep would make the difference between me making the team and not making it, finally paid off. It seemed like just yesterday I was a little boy watching Evan Lysacek win gold in Vancouver, in total awe and wondering if I would ever even get close to that level someday. I had finally achieved my dream.”
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Zhou turned in an especially strong performance in the Free Skating in Korea to move up from 12th to 6th place in his Olympic debut. However, at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2018, he faltered in the Free Skating and dropped from third to 14th. The skater had to regroup for the following season and he wanted to develop himself further.
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“The following season was even harder for me,” he admitted. “After performing five quads at the Olympics, I was branded as just another quad jumper. And unfortunately, to make the Olympic team, that's what I had to do. In my first year as an international senior, I knew my components weren't going to skyrocket immediately, so I had to gain points by doing harder jumps. My goal has always been to become a complete skater and awesome performer as well as jumper, but I had to focus on one more in order to achieve a goal. But now, it was time to bring in the full picture. While working to develop my skating skills and create two programs that had the potential to act as vehicles carrying me to the world podium, my jumps started to not feel as good as before. Attempting a complete program with transitions, commitment to choreo, interpretation of music, and multiple difficult quads is on a completely different level from skating from end to end of the rink doing jumps. Then Skate America happened, and suddenly I found myself the target of multiple underrotation calls per program, some of them highly questionable, which also resulted in a big wave of internet hate directed towards me--all of a sudden I couldn't do clean jumps, and I didn't have good components either. I had to shake off these outside influences and head back to evaluate what was wrong with my jumps and continue developing my artistry and components. I ended up completely redefining what was a "clean jump" for me and started expecting nothing less than the clearest, cleanest jumps from myself. And even then, I continued getting underrotation calls. I remember at 2019 Four Continents, I did a completely backwards quad Lutz-triple toe on video, something that wouldn't have even been reviewed by the most inexperienced caller, and the triple toe was called under. In a press conference at Four Continents, where I won bronze, I was asked about my goal for Worlds. I said that with my improvement at this competition, and winning my first major ISU event medal, I had recognized the potential to win bronze at Worlds. I knew, just like making the Olympic team, it would be a very long shot, many factors were going against me, and it would depend on the performance of other skaters heavily favored for a world medal. But I knew that if I skated clean, with a two quad short and a three quad long, along with my improvement in the second mark, the potential was there, and it would be an incredible dream come true if I could achieve it. For that, I was laughed at. People said I couldn't do it. People said that was me being full of myself thinking I was good enough to do it. And a month later, I went and I showed them. I was so desperate to prove to myself and others that I could do it, that I refused to let my aspirations be cast away as nothing. And I did it. That felt soooo good. And one week later, I went and scored 299 (let's call it 300🙄) at World Team Trophy along with a near perfect Free Skating, cementing my World bronze as not just a one-hit wonder. And this whole time, I never forgot that the Junior Grand Prix started all of this crazy journey. I never forgot the feeling of awe when I first stepped out on the ice in Bratislava, similarly desperate and hungry to prove myself worthy of the international stage. And my growth as a skater along the way has been a story of success, failure, struggle, determination, and eventual realization of dreams, and despite every hardship along the way, I would not in any lifetime choose the easier path, for that would make me less than what I am today.”
Vincent Zhou (USA) at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating (USA) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
While Vincent has moved on to the top senior level, he still follows the junior scene. “I don't watch juniors as much as I used to when I competed in the Junior Grand Prix, but I still follow the current generation. I think they're amazing. There are lots of skaters who are better than me when I was at their level, and I'm super excited to see their growth and also to eventually compete with and be pushed and inspired by the younger generation,” he said.
In the current situation when the ISU was forced to cancel the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating series due to the Covid-19 pandemic for the first time since it was introduced more than 20 years ago, Zhou has a message for the junior skaters: “Never give up! As you can probably tell from my story above, I'm a firm believer that with the right hard work and dedication, any impossible dream becomes attainable. Also, a good bit of advice is that planning for the four year Olympic cycle early is good. During the 2016/17 Junior season, planning for the possibility of making the 2018 Olympic team paid off for me.”
Vincent is entering his fourth senior season and is looking ahead. “Right now, my sights are fully set on the 2022 Olympic podium. We choreographed this year's programs with the 2022 Olympics completely in mind, and everything I am doing now is to ensure that when the time comes, I will be in the best possible condition and will be able to skate like I've always dreamed of--with great quads as well as great performance and artistry. Nobody is sure about the competition situation yet for this season, but I just did a small local one in Colorado and got off to a great start to the season. My programs this year are two of my favorites and I can't wait to perform them on the big stage. I'm looking forward to seeing what I can accomplish, and I'm going to fight for another World medal,” he concluded.
Watch Vincent's performance at the 2017 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships with the full stream on the Skating ISU YouTube Channel. You will also find Ted's Takes on the top performances of every event of the Championships.
Coming up next will be the 2018 and 2019 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships streams, Don't miss them! You will find the full schedule here.
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