Win Marks Vincent Zhou A Beijing Medal Contender, And Other Takeaways From Skate America

by Lynn Rutherford

Vincent Zhou performs in the Exhibition Program during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America on Oct. 24, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 


The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating opened this past weekend with Skate America, held for a third straight time in Las Vegas. With many of the biggest names in U.S. figure skating taking part, and the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on the horizon, there were some strong performances and surprising results.
Here are the big takeaways:

Up until Saturday, Vincent Zhou had never won an ISU Grand Prix event, nor had he defeated countryman Nathan Chen in international or U.S. senior competition. As he told reporters on Sunday, “I don’t think one gold medal changes anything between me and Nathan.” But the victory — Zhou scored 295.56 to defeat second-place Shoma Uno of Japan (270.68) and Chen (269.37) — and his stellar performances in the process, put him firmly into the medal conversation for Beijing.
“I always believed in myself, I always thought it would be possible if I worked hard and did my best, I could win an Olympic medal,” Zhou, who made his Olympic debut in 2018, said. “I know my results in the past make it difficult for people to see that as realistic, but hopefully maybe after this, people will start to see me as a contender more.”
The Palo Alto, California, native celebrated his 21st birthday with a five-quad free skate in Las Vegas, free of the under-rotation deductions that have troubled him in the past. His “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” program, revived from the 2018-19 season, is polished, sophisticated and exciting, and should resonate with a Beijing audience.
Zhou entered the season already under pressure: his 25th-place free skate at the 2021 world championships meant he had to compete at Nebelhorn Trophy last month to qualify a third U.S. men’s spot for Beijing. He did so easily, winning the event.
“I headed into this season determined to prove worlds was a fluke, I am so much more capable,” Zhou said, adding, “Skating a five-quad long that well is very difficult and I feel so crazy it happened. At the same time I have been training well, I have been able to (do it) in practice.”
Following his disappointing worlds' result, Zhou re-vamped his coaching team. Tom Zakrajsek and Drew Meekins work as a team training him in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while Mie Hamada, who is based in Japan, joins him for video sessions each week.
“He got an early start, he had to because of Nebelhorn, and he is building on that,” Zakrajsek said. “What you saw is not just him being more aggressive but him layering his training and improving other aspects on it. The scores should go up, they should get better and he will win some more events.”
The coaches have drafted specific weekly training plans targeting each section of both of his programs, designed to optimize the points available in each section.
“The most important thing is staying healthy, no injuries, as little distraction in training as possible,” Zhou said. “Continue the high level of training to refine my jump technique, so my jumps are even cleaner, and improving my transitions and performance (quality), is going to hopefully maintain my results this year.”
“Not just last season, but even the year Vincent won world bronze (2019), he wasn’t terribly consistent competing,” Zakrajsek said. “And even his path to PyeongChang, he made it there but it wasn’t because he was super consistent. So another big goal this year is every time he goes out to compete it is going to be close to what he trains every single time. So we’re going to keep this momentum going into NHK Trophy (Nov. 12-14) and another event just announced, Warsaw Cup (Nov. 18-21). He’s definitely working the plan.”

Regardless of his missteps in Las Vegas, where he fell on or popped quadruple jumps in both of his programs, Nathan Chen is the odds-on favorite whenever he competes.
The three-time reigning world champion had not lost an event since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and as Chen himself noted, the end of his winning streak is “not devastating.” In fact, ridding himself of talk of “the streak” could work to his benefit.
“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in the past, but at this point in time the only thing I can do is move forward,” Chen said. “That’s where my mind’s at.”
While Chen’s short program in Las Vegas was a near-total hash — he missed two quads and finished fourth — there are positive takeaways from his free skate. He landed a quad loop, a jump he has rarely done in competition, as well as a quad flip combination and two other quads. (He popped quad lutz and salchow into doubles.) Trying six quads in a free skate under pressure may not be necessary again.
“I was in a bad position already, so why not try? That was the reasoning there,” Chen said. 
His new free skate, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to Mozart selections, looked under seasoned — no surprise since Chen did not compete at his usual early-season tune-up, Japan Open, due to travel restrictions. Another chance to show it is fast approaching at Skate Canada this weekend. And, if he and coach Rafael Arutunian prefer, he can always revive a past program, as Zhou has done.
“I don’t have a perfect answer,” said Chen, “but (figuring things out) is definitely something that will be a priority for me. At this point in time, all I can really try to do is keep moving forward, try to learn from this competition and go from there.”

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in Pairs Free Skating during ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 25, 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden.


The big news out of the women’s event in Las Vegas was that Alexandra Trusova, a 17-year-old Russian, won with “only” one quad in her “Cruella” free skate. She usually tries three, or more, but arrived at Skate America hampered by a foot injury.
“It was like a day of rest,” Trusova said at the press conference. “We wanted to skate here with three quads but couldn’t. With the injury, I lost a lot of practice time.”
Another 17-year-old, Young You of South Korea, won her first Grand Prix medal, a silver, with a triple axel in her free skate.
Trusova and You are hardly alone. Several young Russian women routinely include quads in the free skates (women are not permitted to do them in short programs) and skaters in Japan, including Rika Kihira, attempt triple axels.
Of current U.S. women, only two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, 16, has landed triple axel and quad. She will compete at Skate Canada later this week.
Mature U.S. skaters, including Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen, aged 23 and 22 respectively, have said they are working on triple axel, but they do not regularly attempt it in their programs.
Besides Liu, U.S. silver medalist Amber Glenn — who led the U.S. women by finishing sixth at Skate America — has come closest to landing triple axel in competition. A powerful jumper, she landed the jump in practice in Las Vegas but elected not to try it in either her short program or free skate. The last time she did, earlier this month at Finlandia Trophy, she took a painful fall. That tumble was on her mind in Las Vegas.
“I trained really hard this summer, even tried some quad toes, it was going really well,” Glenn, who turns 22 this week, said. “But unfortunately, I don’t have the body that I did at 15. My body can’t take as much impact as it used to. After months of doing triple axels and quads, pushing, pushing, pushing, your body starts to break down a little bit.”
Also, Glenn emphasized, a skater must be in the proper frame of mind to try the jump.
“If you’re not, then falls like the one I had in Finland happen, and that hurts,” she said.

The U.S. pair champions were a bit unlucky at Skate America. At another event, their programs — including their second-place 136.60 point free skate, a new personal best — might have won a medal. In the strong Las Vegas field, they placed fourth.
“Any other Grand Prix, they would be on the podium,” said Bruno Marcotte, who coached the surprising Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara to silver, Japan’s first-ever Grand Prix medal. “They are a top team.”
Frazier’s fall on a triple toe loop in the short program, a jump he routinely hits, cost them. He landed a solid triple toe, double toe combination in their “Fix You” free, as well as a triple salchow.
“One thing I’m taking from this week is just learning still,” Frazier, 28, said. “No matter how long you’ve been doing this, I made a basic error.”
“People don’t realize how much of a toll an error, something so minor, can take on a human,” Knierim, 30, said. “Even after free program practice, it was still bothering (Brandon). That’s something people on the outside don’t understand. This is everything for us. Just the smallest mistake, can kill us inside.”
The team is still new, having paired up just last spring. Todd Sand, who trains the skaters in Irvine, California, thinks greater consistency will come as the season goes on. They will compete at a second Grand Prix, Internationaux de France, Nov. 19-21.
“This year they have tried to take a step-up and not just do the elements, but make the elements spectacular, finish off every element and really pay attention to the details of every single finger, arm, free leg in the programs,” he said.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.