ON THE MORNING before the day he's been working for his whole life, Vincent Zhou feels fine. He's been in Beijing for more than a week, gearing up to fight for the Olympic medal he believes he deserves.
He already competed in the team event. He hadn't been his best -- he told his coach he felt a little sweatier than usual, maybe a bit tired -- but he kept Team USA in silver medal position.
The 21-year-old is getting ready to go to practice, where he'll skate alongside the men who will be his rivals for the podium: six-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, 2018 Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno. His phone goes off. Something is wrong.
He's tested positive for COVID-19.
This can't be happening. He's been so careful. He's tested daily; he doesn't even take his mask off to chew his food. He feels fine. Maybe it's a false positive. Maybe it'll all be cleared up and he'll still get to compete.
He takes another test. It's not negative.
On the evening before the day he's been working for his whole life, Zhou doesn't lace up his skates. He sits alone in a hotel room outside the athletes village and turns on his phone.
"Hey everyone. I have no idea how to start off this video properly, so I'm just going to get started," he says, staring unflinchingly into the camera. "I have tested positive for COVID-19 and unfortunately I will have to withdraw from the individual event starting tomorrow. ...
"I've isolated myself so much that the loneliness I've felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times. The enormity of the situation, the pain of it all is pretty insane. ...
"To the future Vincent watching this, your younger self would be so proud of the athlete and person you've become now," he says through tears. "When you were young sitting on the couch watching those great skaters on TV, studying their jumps every night at the dinner table, and waking up at 4 a.m. or earlier to go into the rink and skate and do double jumps, you had no idea what you were getting into. But you had a dream, and you followed it. You made sacrifices for it and you dedicated your life to it. And today, you are that person, Vincent."
In this moment, when his dream is snatched from him, Zhou still shows the grit and commitment that led him to leave his family as a child to chase his skating dreams, the commitment that set him on a 13-year journey and took him far from home, sleeping in basements and crisscrossing the country, all the way to his second Olympics. That commitment -- as well as his mental health -- has been sorely tested over the years by financial hardship, injury and the misfortune of coming up at the same time as Chen, widely considered one of the greatest figure skaters ever.
This latest blow, perhaps the cruelest of all, will not defeat him, Zhou says in his video.
"Hopefully I will have the opportunity to represent Team USA at the world championships. I will be back stronger than. I will be back better than. This is not the end. This is the setup for a bigger comeback."
On the day his Olympic dream is broken, Zhou is already talking about the next event, the world championships, which take place this week in Montpellier, France. A different skater might have skipped the competition, as many do in Olympic years. Zhou is determined to make this stand, a chance to salvage a year he had imagined ending so very differently. He dreamed of Olympic glory. Now, just stepping on the ice on Thursday will be enough.
VINCENT ZHOU IS spinning. Not on the ice, but in a big office chair at his family's home in Palo Alto, California. He is 8 years old, and his mom, Fei Ge, is having a serious conversation with him.
An energetic child, he's tried and excelled at all sorts of sports -- soccer, basketball, T-ball, skating, track, diving -- and he also plays the piano. His mom wants him to pick one activity and stick with it. In soccer, he's been nicknamed "The Machine" because he scores so many goals. In skating, he finished one place short of the podium at a competition and told his mom, "I want that medal." Diving might help with college down the road and would be easier on Mom and Dad, who both work demanding jobs in Silicon Valley, because he can do it with his older sister, Vivian, at nearby Stanford Diving Club.
The young boy stops spinning. In the stillness, he looks at his mom and says, "My heart is with skating."
"He was very stubborn," Ge says now in a mix of English and Mandarin. "When he was young, he had a big personality."
Back in Palo Alto, they quickly realize Vincent needs higher-level coaching and a higher-level sacrifice. Like many skaters before him, he will have to move, which will mean splitting up the family. It also means Ge will need to quit her job as a software engineer at Oracle to move with him. "My husband and I couldn't eat or sleep," Ge says now of the difficult questions each decision seemed to bring. Could they make ends meet on just one income, not to mention keep up with the high costs of supporting an elite figure skater? Would Vivian, 11 at the time, be OK without her mom? Would Vincent be OK without his dad, Max? What would they do if Max lost his job? When would the family be together again?
But Ge is motivated by the memory of another dream. Vivian hadn't been able to join a gymnastics team because her parents couldn't take her to practice three times a week. Ge wants it to be different for Vincent. "I felt guilty I didn't support her at the time," she says. "I have to support the second child."
Besides, the family thinks, it is only temporary. Give Vincent an opportunity to learn as much as he can for two years and then come home.
"My ideal plan was so simple," Ge says, looking back with a soft chuckle. "I never thought his skating career would take off, that there was no way back."
"I-5 WITH THE stinky cows. It's a 183-mile stretch, 38 miles on the highway through Gilroy ..."
Zhou is sitting in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, a sparkling, 60,000-square-foot building in Colorado Springs, where he lives and trains. It's a month before the Beijing Games, and he's retracing just how far he's come, down to the mile markers on the I-5. He and his mother traveled down this road, the artery that connects northern and southern California, every weekend when he was young. "I still remember every single -- maybe not every single mile because I was asleep sometimes -- but every single part of the trip. Four hundred miles, 6½ to seven hours," he says. "All the highways. I remember it all."
Zhou often talks this way, interrupting himself to provide more context, editing his speech in real time. He speaks softly but at length, and he's not afraid to poke fun at his own verbosity. When asked whether one of his quotes might someday adorn the walls of the museum, he says, "I doubt it. Well, I'm a little bit too wordy."
As he walks through the museum, dressed in a Team USA tracksuit, gray sneakers and a facemask, he points out the scoreboard from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic hockey game and calls the 2004 film about it his favorite movie of all time. At an exhibit on analytics and sports tech, Zhou says his highest vertical jump is 30.7 inches. "I read that the average NBA player's vertical jump is 28 inches," he says. "I feel pretty good about that."
He pauses in front of a quote on the wall, a spin on the old idea that it takes a village to raise a child, especially if that child turns out to be an Olympian. "I like this quote a lot," he says. "Like it says, it takes a village. There's core people that have been with you the whole journey."
AFTER ZHOU'S DECLARATION that his heart is with skating, mother and son travel 400 miles south, to Riverside, a city about 90 minutes east of Los Angeles, to train with elite coach Tammy Gambill. At first Zhou writes emails to his classmates about "how I'm on some great journey to a faraway land." But Ge quickly realizes regular schooling will be unsustainable with his skating schedule and switches him to online school.
A real estate agent friend lets them stay for free with two other women in an apartment still under construction. There is no electricity and no hot water. Zhou eats canned Vienna sausages for breakfast. They shower at the UC Riverside dorms. He has stomachaches in the mornings, and Ge buys him hot chocolate from Starbucks to warm him. In the tough conditions, Zhou loses weight, and when they go back to NorCal, a choreographer says, "Vincent, you shrunk!"
Eventually they buy a house in foreclosure not far from the rink. Every Thursday evening, they drive north to spend the weekend with Max and Vivian. Zhou and his sister are both stellar athletes who "always try to outdo each other," he says.
On Sunday afternoons, Ge picks up Vincent from Chinese school at 3 p.m. and drives straight back south, stopping once for gas. "My mom did everything for me," Zhou says. "Nobody would drive that much for me, but in order to try to have some sort of family life, that's what we did."
Zhou is largely oblivious to the hardships because he is so young. But Ge sees her son's experiences sleeping on floors and traveling the country (and eventually the world) to find the best coaching as "a gift from life, to have experiences his peers don't. He couldn't learn this from books."
It pays off. Zhou thrives on ice. He quickly advances up the ranks, winning the national championship at three lower levels in three years. The third year, he wins the junior national title over Chen at the 2013 U.S. Championships.
"Everybody was looking at this new kid on the block who was messing things up," Zhou says now.
Seven months later, it all comes to a halt.
"SEPT. 6, 2013, he had surgery," Ge says solemnly, the date etched in her memory. Zhou had been skating on a torn meniscus in his right knee for three years. He pushed through the pain, though he says it hurt "every time I bent my knee or bore weight on my right side, which is basically 100% of the time." In the fall of 2013, an MRI reveals a nearly 2-centimeter tear -- too much damage to repair. Surgeons remove it entirely. He is 12 years old.
Zhou has to do hours of painful rehab every day. He doesn't know if he will ever skate again, let alone return to his original level. "It was torture," Ge remembers, "for such a young child. ... He was very depressed. He was a boy wonder, a new star in the U.S., and suddenly he fell. So of course he was upset."
"I was going to online school," Zhou says. "I was stuck under the same roof, 24/7, unable to go outside, unable to do anything, all my friends were at the rink. Every day just becomes so gloomy and boring and it's easy to slip into a very bad mental state."
Ge tries to prepare him emotionally for a possible end to his skating career, reminding him how nice it is to be home and reunited with the family. She sends him to summer math camps in the Bay Area.
He rides his bike with kids in the park and tries to make new friends. She can see him trying to blend in again.
But Zhou feels isolated and unable to process his feelings alone. "I didn't have any help, which was the worst part," he says now. "I didn't have a phone at the time. I couldn't talk to people. ... I started to hate the rink and everything to do with it. After a couple months, that faded into an ambivalence or not really caring anymore."
The ongoing struggles and the social isolation of online school take a toll on Zhou's mental health beyond the rink. "I went from an extremely competitive, extroverted, I'll go up to anyone and chat with them type person, to very introverted," he says. "It's taken me a long time and a lot of media exposure to finally come out of my shell a little bit."
As autumn approaches, Ge registers him for school in Palo Alto. But when she tries to take him to meet with a counselor, Zhou says, Mom, if you make me go choose classes, I will jump out of your car. As a compromise, she suggests going to school in Southern California and skating after classes. But Zhou insists on online school.
After about a year he starts seeing therapists, though Zhou says now that "it wasn't exactly a process that was controlled by me and what I wanted." He declines to go into further detail.
He'd been the best skater in the country at his level for three years in a row. Now, skates laced, he is scared to step on the ice. Ge says people gossiped about how her son had changed. "'How come you were like that then and now you're like this?'" she recalls. The memory of what he'd been before the injury hung over the ice. "He always wanted to present his best," she says. "He was so young. He couldn't handle it."
Eventually he agrees to go with a friend to a public skate session where "nobody would care or be watching," he says. "I just decided, why not? Let's go. Before I knew it, my competitive self was back again. I was trying to do everything again. That's how I got back into it."
His heart is still with skating.
In the end, Zhou misses two seasons, and today he calls it "the single biggest detriment to my skating career." He thinks he might have come back faster, after only one season, if he'd had help with his mental health. "I was right on Nathan Chen's tail at that time," he says. "And then this injury and the two-year thing happened, and when I got back, I was way behind. Ever since then it's felt like a game of catch-up.
"People never look at me as a contender, and when I do win some medal or do something good, it's always a surprise. They don't really expect that out of me," he says. "But I've always expected it of myself. I've always had my vision of achieving great things one day."
IN OCTOBER 2021, seven months after a disappointing worlds performance in which he didn't qualify for the free skate, Zhou looks like a man transformed at Skate America.
Chen comes into the event in imperious form. He's won 14 straight competitions since the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 and is all but guaranteed to continue that streak. But he skates poorly in the short program, including two falls, and finishes the day in fourth.
Zhou takes advantage. He nails all three of his jumps to take the lead. The winner of the short program skates last on the second day, a position Zhou is not used to given Chen's dominance. "Recognizing that there was this massive opportunity in front of me -- and not to mention it being my first time in this sort of position -- that alone is a huge amount of pressure and potential distractions and room for overthinking," he says now.
But he doesn't let the pressure get to him. His free skate, set to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," looks special from the very first jump, a soaring quad lutz. When his score appears, he covers his face and sobs. He's won by a margin of 25 points. It is the first time he's beaten Chen in senior competition -- and the first time anyone has beaten Chen in three years.
Zhou seems completely at ease, master of his mind and body, an athlete in control of his own destiny.
AT THE OLYMPIC training center in Colorado Springs in December, Zhou skates around a busy rink teeming with Beijing hopefuls listening intently to his coach, Tom Zakrajsek. Ge, enveloped in a puffy purple coat, sits on a bleacher watching carefully.
She's spent 13 years -- a lifetime -- feeding and driving her son to the rink before dawn, sitting and watching him progress from doing incomplete crossovers to landing the most difficult jumps in the sport. Day after day, rink after rink, from California to Michigan to Japan and back. She's cooked him plates of scallion pancakes, noodles, potstickers, steak with cucumber strips, and tutored him through years of online school. She has advocated for him with coaches and helped coaches understand him.
The two have been living together for so long that Zhou says he can tell what she's going to say before she says it. "Even if I have my earbuds in and I'm not even facing her, I can tell when she's about to say something to me," he says. He sees his mother's quiet devotion in each day they spend at the rink, the opportunity she has made possible for him through her sacrifice. He is her life's work.
They're looking forward to Max and Vivian coming to stay for Christmas. Max, an engineer at Google, has been able to visit more frequently during the pandemic because he's working at home. Vivian, who Ge says has been "very independent" since she was young, recently graduated from MIT, where she was an All-American diver. She will start a doctorate program in neuroscience in the fall. "It will probably be our last Christmas together as a family in a long time," Zhou says. "We're just going to try and cherish every moment."
After a run-through of his short program, set to Josh Groban's dreamy "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)," Zhou attempts three quad jumps, a drill Zakrajsek devised to make him practice his technique while fatigued. When asked what sets Zhou apart from other skaters, Zakrajsek, who previously guided Mirai Nagasu to the 2018 Olympics, doesn't hesitate. "I think he's the hardest-working male figure skater maybe in the world," he says. "He's the hardest-working athlete in my 32 years coaching."
Quad for quad, Zhou has the jumps to match Chen, often called the "Quad King." Zhou became the first person in Olympic history to land the quad lutz, the most difficult of the four-rotation jumps, in Pyeongchang when he was 17. But he has struggled for consistency since those Games, where he finished sixth, one place behind Chen. "Sometimes quads feel like rolling dice," he says. "It's like trying to make a left turn in a busy intersection where the cars just don't stop coming and there's no traffic light."
He attended Brown University for a semester and struggled to balance school and skating. When he came back to the ice full time, Zhou won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships, behind Chen and Hanyu. It was the first time two U.S. men had shared a podium at worlds since 1996. Zhou bounced between coaches and at one point moved to Canada to train, but he came back to Zakrajsek in Colorado for the Olympic season.
To train his consistency, Zhou's team puts him through what his coach and choreographer Drew Meekins calls adversity training. "Consistency is being able to perform an outcome within a certain range, no matter what you're up against. So we've tried to make him experience all those things," Meekins says. "We've made him tired on purpose. We've made him nervous on purpose. We've made him have equipment trouble on purpose. We've made him not sleep a lot on purpose. We've done all these things to give him these challenges that he can learn to accomplish one by one."
At this moment, none of them realize just how important the adversity training will be.
TEN DAYS AFTER testing positive in Beijing, Zhou is out of quarantine. He's still processing what happened to him. He eventually developed a sore throat and some congestion, but he says it was nothing more than a mild cold.
He did not watch the men's competition. It was "too emotionally difficult," he says. Even seeing the results was extremely painful. The field had been more open than ever after Hanyu made an uncharacteristic mistake in the short program. Zhou had beaten three of the top five finishers before, including gold medalist Chen. Bronze, even silver, was very much a possibility. "It was very difficult for me seeing the results because I knew I could have medaled," he said.
He worked out with his trainer, listened to music and reconnected with friends he'd lost touch with. After he posted his emotional video, many people reached out, including Josh Groban, the singer of his short-program music. "That was a really wholesome moment," he says. His coaches tried to keep him occupied and reminded him of things he could look forward to once he got out of quarantine. Meekins introduced him to Wordle, and Zhou tried Netflix for the first time. Not one to mindlessly binge watch TV, even in isolation, he chose to watch "Icarus," the 2017 documentary about the Russian doping program, to better understand the scandal developing around Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva.
Finally out of isolation, he is looking forward to skating once more on Olympic ice, at the figure skating gala, a fun event featuring medalists and others invited to perform, and walking the closing ceremony with his teammates. He's proud to be an Olympic team silver medalist.
But more disappointment is in store. Despite performing in the gala hours before, Zhou is told on the way to the bus with his teammates that he is a "close-contact risk" for COVID-19 and is not allowed to march. He pleads his case to the Olympic authorities, but their decision is made. He watches the rest of Team USA walk away without him. "We were really hoping he would get to walk, to get some closure, especially in his situation," Meekins says.
Zhou also still doesn't have his team silver medal, which is tied up in the Valieva doping case that could take years to resolve.
A MONTH AFTER the day he worked for his whole life, Zhou is back in Colorado Springs training for the world championships, which he calls his "personal Olympics." Every day is a challenge as the enormity of what happened to him in Beijing sinks in.
"My psychologist says that this is very similar to grieving for the loss of a loved one. And that's what it does feel like," he says. "It feels like I lost something that I always thought would be there with me my whole life, which was the opportunity to compete at the Olympics. That was my dream that I've had for my whole life."
The grief comes in waves. One morning he woke up from a nightmare about skating and couldn't get up or go to the rink. "[I] woke up just feeling wrong, I couldn't bring myself to look at my skates," he says. "I spent the first half of the day basically crying and not being able to do anything. I walked outside for one and a half hours, just staring at my feet."
The emotions he experienced when he was 12 and recovering from knee surgery have come back. "Anger, guilt, frustration, just sadness, pain, everything, I haven't felt so strongly since then," he says. "The feeling of getting up and seeing nothing in the world to look forward to, feeling like you have nothing to be proud of. I haven't felt a lot of those things since my knee surgery period. That was really scary because I knew how awful it was when I was a kid."
He's determined to keep himself "from that hole" and pushes himself to stick to his routine. Some days he convinces himself to forget what happened, but as soon as he steps on the ice, it hits him again. He reminds himself that he has a responsibility not just to himself, but to Team USA. "When you're feeling like this, it's easy to get stuck in your own bubble and feel sorry for yourself," he says. "But thinking about other people is one of the best ways to stay grounded and stay out of that really bad downward spiral mindset."
His coaches say they try to adapt their training plan to what Zhou needs each day. Sometimes, if he needs to talk, Meekins takes laps with him around the ice. They all are working to make sense of what happened. "It felt like something had been ripped out of me or chopped off," Zakrajsek says.
He tries to remind Zhou that there's more to life -- and more to him -- than the ice rink. "I'm trying to reinforce his value as a human being," he says. "Like, 'It's not just about figure skating, Vincent. You're a human being, you're intelligent, you have so much that you bring to the world besides your activity in sport.'"
Other times he simply commiserates. "You know what? COVID sucks. I get it. I'm so sorry."
Even as he's sharing the painful details of his grief, Zhou points out with characteristic self-awareness that it's important to let himself feel these emotions, however hard and disruptive they might be.
"It won't do me any good to try to suppress the feelings right now because if I try to suppress them, they'll be stuck in there," he says. "And then, once I get to France, the pressure will make things seem a lot worse. And that might cause an implosion."
He takes a moment, then adds: "I mean, it might happen, even if I let things out right now, just because of the circumstances and the way this whole process is working out for me. But like I said, I'm doing my best."
As a boy, he told his mom, "I want that medal." Ahead of worlds, perhaps for the first time in his career, Zhou isn't thinking about a medal. It's a difficult thing for a person who holds himself to exacting standards to admit. But even as he acknowledges he isn't in the optimal condition to compete, Zhou is determined to be there.
"It's not my favorite thing to say. I don't expect myself to be at the top of my game at worlds, but I do want to finish off the season with something that I can feel proud of," he says. "It's a big ask. I still have high expectations for myself, but I'm juggling that with the reality of where I am."