In the spring, after sessions with a new choreographer – Lori Nichol – a light flickered inside Vincent Zhou.
The incredible young quadmeister, who attempted a total of seven quads at last year’s U.S. championships, finally had an epiphany about music and movement and rhythm and the imagery possible in skating.
“Working with Lori really helped kickstart the new…Golden Age of Vincent Zhou,” he said, with some amusement in his voice. (But he means it.)
Nichol helped Zhou create his new short program to “Exogenesis”, music that demands a sensitive touch and ghostlike movement. “Working with Lori was quite an experience,” he said during a conference call in advance of Skate America next week, the first of six Grand Prix events. “I’ve never really had such a connection to music and movement before working with her.”
Zhou didn’t have time for all of that last season, with the Olympics as the goal and tight competition for one of three spots, too. Zhou, at 17, knew he didn’t have the artistic chops at his stage to pick up the points he needed.
“During the Olympic season, I had put so much pressure on myself to make the Olympic team and I knew that improvement in the second mark wouldn’t come as quickly as one season,” he said. “But the best way to get enough points to make the team was obviously to go for all the quads. When doing that, I didn’t leave much room for my second mark to grow.”
But the Pyeongchang Olympic season is behind him, and the next one, four years out in Beijing (where Zhou would like to a gold medal contender) is still on a far horizon. So now is the time to lay out all of the building blocks he needs to get there. “My approach this season is that it’s most certainly not all about the jumps,” he said.
He competed at the U.S. International Classic at Salt Lake City earlier this season, where he finished fourth (only sixth after that magic short, although he won the free). But take note: he had only been skating a week after a summer of discontent. A back injury – originating the day before he left for the 2018 world championships in Milan, Italy (thus no surprise when he finished 19th in the free skate and 14th overall) lingered all summer. And there was a skate problem, too. They are all behind him now, he said.
The back injury continues to be a mystery. He said he’s never figured out exactly what it was all about. “I’m pretty sure there were some muscle problems,” he said. After the world championships, he thought he would get a rest to let healing take its course, but alas, not. He missed months of skating.
He had lots of shows – one in Korea, which was a week-long trip and lots of time in a plane, six stops on the U.S. Stars on Ice tour, on and on. “I spent lots of time out of home,” he said. Finally, when he got back to California to work with his doctor, she worked on muscles and advised him to stay off the ice for a bit. And then there was choreography to do for this season, too.
In retrospect, he said the time away from the ice may be a blessing. He had time to improve his skating, if not his jumping. It allowed him to sit back and reassess what he wanted to focus on.
“Otherwise, who knows? I might have started to try quad loop, just out of ambitious teenager-ness,” he said. “And hurt myself later….I’ve made it pretty clear with myself and with my team that I don’t want this season to be all about jumps. So just having that mindset has helped a lot, too.”
So watch for his skating into jumps flowing better. From Nichol, he learned “a lot about different feelings that you can create with movement,” he said. “Before a lot of it had just been: ‘Okay, do this with your arm. Do this with your back so it looks better.
“But Lori really helped me connect with imagery and rhythm,” he said. He’s continued knowledge and understanding with Tom Dickson back home at Colorado Springs. He has long admired Patrick Chan, known for his skating ability. He knows there are skaters who are so talented with skills that you could hit pause on a video, and they will always be in beautiful position.
“I can’t really say that about myself,” he said. “But the way you move from position to position, the kind of angles you can create…I’ve barely scratched the surface. I have a lot more to work on.”
And it showed in his short program at Salt Lake City.
His free skate to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” the first time he has skated to an Asian-themed program since he was a novice skater “a long time ago.” (Six years ago he was U.S. novice champion. When he won the junior title a year later, he was the youngest in history at age 12).
It’s not something that hasn’t been done before, he said, but it’s still not been overdone. “A lot of the skating community is Asian,” said Zhou, whose parents were born in China. “”If I can do something that they can relate to, then win-win.”
He is also casting an eye toward the 2022 Beijing Olympics. “I want to start understanding what it’s like to skate to that type of music at a high level,” he said. He’s taken a few lessons from kungfu or wushu instructors wo he can understand the positions a little better.
“I know that a lot of western idea of Asia martial arts is to do the cool flexed-hand position,” he said. He wants to move in a more accurate way. After all, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has been hailed as one of the most influential of all martial-arts films, after it was released in 2,000. It won four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Original Score and was the highest grossing foreign-language film produced overseas in U.S. history.
Jeff Buttle, who choreographed both of Zhou’s Olympic programs, created the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” routine. “It’s a good program all around,” Zhou said. “There’s not much I can complain about, once I skate it the way it’s intended.” It’s still difficult to incorporate combining the movements with jumps.
He’s only a week out from Skate America, and says he has finally got back to full or near-strength and is consistently landing all four quads that he does, he says. He intends to do two quads in the short program (as he did at Salt Lake) and more than two in the free. “I still don’t know exactly how many,” he said. “But at the week progresses, my team and I will make a decision.”
Under new International Skating Union rules, skaters are not allowed to repeat more than one quad in the free.
But the 2017 world junior champion – not all that long ago – knows what he must tackle right now. “The transition between junior to senior is a lot of learning how to keep your skating interesting as opposed to just throwing an arm towards the crowd … just to say you engage with them,” he said. It’s a first step.