When people dream of taking a break from their lives and responsibilities, they know that it’s just that – a fantasy.
Olympic figure skater Vincent Zhou was recently granted that exact opportunity, though.
He took time to breathe. He caught up with friends (some for the first time in years). He watched Netflix (for the first time in his life). He worked through his feelings. He listened to music. He exercised. He slept the proper amount. Sounds idyllic.
The only problem?
Zhou’s break from the real world was not by choice and came at the most inconvenient time of his life.
The 21-year-old tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 7 when he was due to compete in the men’s short program at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 8.
After four years of overcoming obstacles to return for a second Olympic appearance, Zhou’s big moment was stolen from him in a flash. The 2019 world bronze medalist spent the next week isolated in a hotel, a 30-minute drive away from the athlete’s village.
“It was definitely not an easy week – some days worse than others – but I tried my best to do what any athlete at the Olympics should when something like this happens,” Zhou explained to members of the media on a teleconference.
He still has no idea how he contracted the virus.
“Short of moving to Antarctica, I think I’ve taken all the precautions,” Zhou said. “I try to eat away from people, I chew with my mask on. I think it’s just a really unfortunate stroke of bad luck. I honestly don’t know how I got it. I controlled the things that I could, and sometimes bad things happen.”
Zhou is now free (within the confines of the Olympic bubble) and thrilled to accept an invitation to skate at the gala that closes out 2 ½ weeks of figure skating at these Games. He is one of eight men’s singles skaters slated for Saturday night's event, an exclusive list that includes the three 2022 Olympic medalists and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
“I’m going to be skating my exhibition program, which is ‘Sign of the Times’ by Harry Styles,” Zhou said. “I wanted to skate my short program, but unfortunately they don’t allow competition programs in the gala. Regardless, it will carry more significance for me because it’s that touch on Olympic ice, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to have.”
The pain of having to withdraw from the men’s competition – for something out of his control – was too raw for Zhou and he chose not to watch from his hotel room. In fact, he did not watch any skating while in isolation but did check results.
“I am beyond thrilled for what [Nathan Chen, gold medalist] and [Jason Brown, sixth place] were able to accomplish,” said Zhou, who texted his U.S. teammates, telling them he was proud of what they achieved.
“It also was very difficult for me seeing the results because I know I could have medaled. I had been training very consistently at that level where I could deliver well enough to pull a score like that and win the bronze medal.”
The silver lining, if one can call it that, is Zhou had already touched Olympic ice for the team event. He was the United States’ entry for the men’s free skate segment on Feb. 6 and contributed eight points to the total team score. When team competition ended the following day (the one on which he first tested positive), the U.S. placed second to the Russian Olympic Committee with Japan third.
The medal ceremony was delayed indefinitely.
After the ice dance competition ended earlier this week, both U.S. couples who competed in the team event were asked about the situation surrounding that competition and, for both, Zhou was top of mind.
“I’m really proud of everyone’s performance in the team event and looking forward to being medalists with all of them as well,” shared Madison Hubbell, who had just earned ice dance bronze with Zachary Donohue. “Hopefully the timing of the medal stand will be one where Vincent is able to join us; that would be best-case scenario.”
When asked if he had been in touch with Zhou, Evan Bates, team co-captain of the U.S. squad with partner Madison Chock, said, “His character is incredible, and he’s been so supportive. … He’s an incredible person. He just had his Olympic moment slip away with a positive test and he’s been thinking of other people. We really hope he can clear protocol soon so we can stand on the podium with him because he deserves that moment.”
Minutes later, the International Olympic Committee announced there will be no team event medal ceremony due to the ongoing saga involving ROC skater Kamila Valieva.
“I do hope that Team USA does receive a medal eventually, and hopefully it won’t take four years or whatever,” Zhou laughed.
When asked about the Valieva situation, Zhou first noted it is ongoing and out of his control, so he did not care to comment. As the interview continued, he revealed his first Netflix watch during isolation was the 2017 documentary “Icarus,” as he wanted to educate himself further on Russia’s state-sponsored doping program.
Eventually, Zhou took a clear stance when Valieva was raised again.
“I think having an advantage in training translates to an advantage in competition, even if you’re clean at the competition,” Zhou said. “I think that fair play and integrity of sport, integrity of the competition is extremely important. These are all obvious things that anyone can agree on. I’m proud to say I’ve competed clean my entire life.
“It definitely is a pretty shocking and scary situation we have going on here. I would understand completely if the ladies didn’t exactly trust the integrity of their competition and the fairness of everything.”