GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Meet the star of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
It is not too soon to start thinking about next time, not for Vincent Zhou, the 17-year-old wonder who dazzled the crowd here on Saturday and announced after his triumphant sixth-place skate that he’s locking his gaze on Beijing.
“It’s going to be my time,” he said.
This isn’t some brash swashbuckling from a teenager. Zhou is laser-focused on Beijing because China is the place of his parents’ birth and the place where his grandparents still live. Their intense work ethic and lofty standards filtered down to the American prodigy, and his best show of gratitude is traveling to his family’s homeland and going for gold.
Zhou was introduced on Saturday as part of Adam Rippon’s group. It is Rippon who has won over crowds here and back home this week with his delightful quotes and this-is-me style, but when the skating began, the crowd was immediately captivated by the technically dynamic teen.
He started with a quad lutz plus triple toe loop, something he was the first ever to do in the Olympics when he landed it in his short program. That led into a quad flip, then quad salchow. He slipped slightly on one jump, but nailed the others, and the arena leaned in. There were two more quads soon to follow – quad lutz and quad toe loop – to make a whopping five in all. He has said he has thought of six, and doubtless over the next four years he will think of six again.
Nathan Chen did attempt six on Saturday after a miserable short program, and the friendly rivalry between the two Americans will get only better. Chen is 18, only one year older than Zhou.
For now, Zhou delivered a 192.16, which is a personal best. When the music stopped, he crouched down onto his knees and pounded the ice in exultation as fans serenaded him with noise. Zhou is someone who seems to choose every word and movement with precision, and here was an outburst of joy.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” he said. “Over the past 17 years I’ve gone through so much, living with a split family. I see my family maybe twice a year. I spend time training in places hundreds, thousands of miles from my family, living in apartments that did not have worthy conditions. I tore a meniscus, almost quit skating. For this to happen …”
And here he choked up just a little.
“For everything that comes in that four minutes and forty seconds.”
He was asked if he had a display of emotion like that ever before. “Not really,” he said, again with those measured words. “I feel like if there was a place to do it, this was the place.”
It is hard to imagine the hype and buzz that’s coming. Americans will make Zhou appointment viewing as he chases the next Olympics. The Chinese will fete him as if he’s their own. Fans from elsewhere around the globe will surely flock. Even on Saturday as he addressed reporters in the mixed zone, two volunteers handed him a pin and asked for a photo. It was unorthodox and borderline rude, but Zhou started to oblige until a guard shooed the fans away.
His story is both an American and Chinese dream. His parents emigrated in the ’90s and became top computer scientists. They had a girl, Vivian, who is now working on her degree in brain and cognitive science at M.I.T. Vincent took a unique and special path, traveling to Southern California and then Colorado to follow a dream his parents weren’t sure he would keep. He graduated high school at 16 and writes poetry in his down time. He is the family cut-up who also happens to be insanely sharp. When a fan asked him about time travel on social media, his response was, “If I time traveled, I would likely end up in outer space because Earth is moving at 67,000 mph and time travel is only time travel and not spacetime travel.”
Those are Zhou’s two sides: playful and machine-like. When he hints at time travel ahead four years, he is bemused and also very serious.
There’s a long way to go to Beijing. Anything can happen, good or bad, especially in this sport. But if he does not make it to this stage again, it will not be because of a lack of will.
“I recognize I have the ambition and determination and perseverance and work ethic to get where I dream of being,” he said.
Then he added to that:
“In four years, who knows where I will be? If I can do this now, I can only imagine what it will be like in four years.”
Only a short time later, he sent out a tweet: “My time is now.”
Vincent Zhou arrived in full on Saturday. Now watch where he’s going.
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