Vincent Zhou, Alysa Liu Ensure U.S. Third Olympic Figure Skating Spots
by Lynn Rutherford
Vincent Zhou performs during the men's short program at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 25, 2021 in Stockholm.
With convincing wins at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, this weekend, Vincent Zhou and Alysa Liu secured the third quota spots for the U.S. in the men’s and women’s figure skating events at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
“Today's skate was exhilarating and I executed my plan well,” Zhou said after his free skate. “It wasn't easy skating last and managing the nerves, but I learned a lot about my process and how to perform well in the given circumstances.”
Nebelhorn was sweet redemption for Zhou, who has placed second in the U.S. to Nathan Chen three times. In March, he had a disastrous short program at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, placing 25th and failing to qualify for the free skate.
This season, the 20-year-old Zhou is back on track, with his trademark quadruple jumps on full display. As a warmup for Nebelhorn, Zhou won the Cranberry Cup International in Norwood, Massachusetts, last month.
“We knew it was a possibility that he would have the big responsibility of securing the third spot of Team USA at Nebelhorn,” Zhou’s coach, Drew Meekins, said via text message. “We planned intentionally for this, to get him ready early to make a strong statement out there.”
Meekins, along with Tom Zakrajsek, trains Zhou at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Meekins focuses on the artistic and presentation aspects of Zhou’s skating, while Zakrajsek’s role is more technical, but the two coaches work in concert.
“We write intricate and specific training plans for Vincent every week, aimed at not only the highest level of conditioning but also polish and challenges for both his body and mind,” Meekins said. “I feel this kind of training has not only made him well conditioned and improved the quality of his elements, but has also made him physically and mentally tough.”
“We work together as a team in every way,” Zakrajsek said. “This includes me making artistic suggestions, and Drew contributing his insights on technique.”
Vincent Zhou poses with his bronze medal after the men's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.
On Friday, Zhou landed four quadruple jumps in a nearly clean outing of his signature “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” free skate, the same program he hopes to perform at the Olympics in February. His total score, 284.23 points, overwhelmed the field by more than 40 points. Adam Siao Him Fa of France was second at 243.78.
“One of the greatest tools a skater can have is a great program,” Zhou said at the press conference following the free skate. “Going back to this program has many advantages. No. 1 ... it was comfortable to skate right away. No. 2, I know it is culturally appropriate for the city of the Olympics. It is also culturally appropriate for me, I understand the Asian martial arts culture very well.”
Zhou’s parents emigrated from China to the U.S. in 1992. The skater first used “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” during the 2018-19 season, winning a world bronze medal. Originally choreographed by Jeffrey Buttle, Zhou and Toronto-based Lori Nichol retooled many of the program’s steps and movements during virtual training sessions this spring and summer.
“We basically did a 2.0 on this program,” Zhou said. “We are continuing to work virtually to polish this program and make all of the transitions much better and make my skating stronger, so I can consistently get my components (artistry and presentation marks).”
Zhou’s next planned competition is Skate America, held in Las Vegas on Oct. 22-24. There, he will square off against three-time world champion Chen.
Liu, a two-time U.S. champion (2019, 2020), claimed gold at Nebelhorn with 207.40 points, easily outdistancing Ekaterina Kurakova of Poland, who was second at 193.58.
“It feels like a lot, I still can’t comprehend how big that is,” Liu said of ensuring the U.S. has three Olympic spots. “I’m really honored to have been chosen for this competition.”
Born August 8, 2005, Liu — who won her first U.S. title at age 13, the youngest woman ever — is in her first season competing internationally. Now 16, she is age-eligible for the Beijing Olympics.
Nebelhorn is already her third international win this season. Like Zhou, she won the Cranberry Cup in August, defeating 2020 U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell in the process. Just two weeks ago, Liu claimed gold at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy. The Northern California native usually trains in Oakland, but prepared for Nebelhorn at a rink in Egna, Italy.
Alysa Liu performs in the skating spectacular at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.
On Saturday, performing her free skate to a Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Liu reduced her opening attempt at a triple axel into a single. After that, it was smooth sailing. She landed seven triple jumps, including a difficult triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, while showing a far more mature and elegant style than she did previously.
"The skate went pretty well today, I’m pretty happy,” Liu said. “I popped my triple axel, but I’m going to work hard in practice so that doesn’t happen.”
The 3½-revolution jump, with its base value of eight points, played a big role in the young skater’s two U.S. title wins, leading her to victories over more experienced competitors such as Bell and two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell. Liu will need it later this season, to compete effectively against a squad of young Russians who routinely include triple axels and quads in their programs.
Liu’s coach, three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, confirms the jump is uppermost in the plans this season.
“The triple axel has been a big part of the daily training,” said Abbott, who trains Liu alongside primary coach Massimo Scali and Lorenzo Magri. “She is able to land it every day (in practice). Now, we are working to make it as clean and as consistent as her other elements.”
Liu is slated to compete at her first senior Grand Prix, Skate Canada, in Vancouver on Oct. 29-31.
“Heading into Skate Canada, the goal is to add the triple axel into the short program, and to continue polishing and expanding the artistic side of her skating,” Abbott said. “(We want to) add more grade of execution and maximize the points in every aspect of her skating.”
This is the first season Team USA has had to compete at Nebelhorn to secure three entries to the Olympics. A new rule of the International Skating Union states that to earn three spots outright at the world championships, three skaters or teams must perform the free skate at worlds. Previously, all that was required was that the top two skaters or teams at worlds had placements totaling 13 or less.
So, although Team USA’s Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell placed fourth and ninth, respectively, at the 2021 World Championships, a third U.S. woman had to compete at Nebelhorn and place in the top six. And although Nathan Chen and Jason Brown finished first and seventh at worlds last season, since Zhou did not qualify for the free skate, a U.S. man had to earn the third spot at Nebelhorn by placing in the top seven.
Based on the results at Nebelhorn, plus those at worlds, Team USA will send three women, three men, three ice dance teams and two pairs to Beijing. The U.S. will also be one of 10 countries to compete in the figure skating team event.