Before the 2017 U.S. Championships, few would have thought Vincent Zhou would be adding a silver medal to his trophy case. Though the 16-year-old had shown promise on the junior circuit, he was mostly untested among America’s elite at the senior national level.

The first half of Zhou’s 2016 season was good, but not spectacular. With two medals on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, he was first alternate for the Final.

Hindered by a nagging hip injury during the first half of the season, Zhou headed to the U.S. Championships under the radar, healthy and hopeful. “Going into nationals, not many people really knew what to expect from me because I had been struggling with a little hip injury. I hadn’t really put out my full technical content, and I had not skated to my ability to that point,” Zhou explained.

After a commendable eighth-place finish in his senior debut a year earlier, it would have been acceptable for Zhou to hope to equal that result in 2017. But with reigning champion Adam Rippon out of the competition due to injury, the door had opened slightly for Zhou.

A solid short program had him in third place heading into the free skate. Last to take the ice — and immediately following Nathan Chen’s five quad jump performance — Zhou soaked up every bit of momentum Chen had created, and skated a program worthy of a national title in almost any other season. With three quads in his free, Zhou defied expectations and thrust himself into the glare of the national spotlight by capturing the silver medal.

“I had a training plan every single week and that allowed me to have confidence that I could do well,” he said. “The training really helped me have a direction and purpose and it ultimately helped me to skate well. “Since then, there have been a lot more eyes on me. It’s been very motivating to know that I can compete with the top men, and that has pushed me to work harder in my training every day.”

Because Zhou did not have the minimum technical scores required to compete at the senior World Championships, he was assigned to the World Junior Championships. With the hip injury in his rearview mirror, and buoyed by the momentum from his podium finish in Kansas City, Zhou captured the title ahead of a very competitive field. “I was not the favorite to win, but the only reason I was not the favorite to win was because of my hip situation from earlier in the season,” he said.

“That held me back from doing the quad Lutz and from skating clean programs sooner. I knew that I had the most difficult technical content of any of the men heading into Junior Worlds, and if I skated clean I had the potential to win.”

Zhou has a large support team, which he admits, to an outsider, may seem over-bearing. But it is a formula he believes will help prepare him for a charge to earn one of the three men’s berths Team USA has for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. “This set-up works very well for me,” said Zhou, who recently graduated from high school. “There is a high level of communication between everyone on my team, and everybody knows what is going on and what is next.”

Zhou now spends most of his time in Colorado Springs, Colorado — with choreographer Drew Meekins — where many other resources are available to him, including the U.S. Olympic Training Center and physical therapists “that help keep me healthy so that I can train at my full potential.”

He returns to southern California to work with his longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, when time permits. “I’m really working on improving my presentation this season, so having daily feedback from Drew is a huge advantage,” Zhou said. He also works with a stable of specialists that supplement his training. “I work with Tom Zakrajsek on jumps — he is the best jump technician I have ever worked with. When Ben Agosto is available, I take lessons from him and I also work with Christopher Dean, who helps polish my programs.”

His team is rounded out with Katherine Hill, a dance coach and movement analyst, and Christy Krall, who, Zhou said, “polishes my posture.”

He has two new programs this season. The short, choreographed by Canada’s Jeffrey Buttle, is set to Cinematic Pop’s version of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” “We knew that we wanted to skate to a similar style of music as last season — something contemporary with vocals,” Zhou explained. “But this program is more about the feeling of the music than about the character, so it’s a departure for me.”

The free skate, set to music from the 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet,” is a collaborative work created by Meekins, Hill and Charlie White. Although it is a character driven program, Zhou explained it is not be a typical portrayal of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover boy. “I am not portraying Romeo falling in love,” he said. “It will be about trying to show the emotions that match the mood of the music. This program is well paced and it allows me to fit in all the big jumping passes while maintaining the emotional integrity of the music.”

Working with Buttle and White was life changing for Zhou, and he believes his skating has improved because of those collaborations. “This year’s programs are special, and I can’t wait to perform them. Jeff and Charlie showed me new and different ways of using my body. “I am doing more intricate transitions, and the choreography is more program- specific. It’s not just generic choreography, but is in tune with the music.”

At the beginning of the summer, Zhou was already skating full run-throughs of the programs, and increased the technical content in preparation for the fall season. By early July Zhou said he had “every ability to skate clean. At this point, however, it is important for me to stay healthy and train intelligently. We are emphasizing quality over quantity.”

He is planning two quads in the short program and four or five in the free skate, and may consider adding more if all goes well. “Right now, I am working on the Salchow, flip and Lutz,” he said. “Consistency is key, so I will only add more difficulty when it makes sense.”

After winning his summer tune-up, Skate Detroit, Zhou placed second at Finlandia Trophy, and ranked fourth in his senior Grand Prix debut at Cup of China. His second assignment is Internationaux de France in Grenoble. “I don’t expect easy competitions. I want to show programs that are worthy of being up there with everyone else. I will be well prepared when the time comes, and all I can do is try my best like I do at any other competition.”

Zhou, who hails from Palo Alto, California, knows there will be some pressure when he heads into the 2018 U.S. Championships, which will take place in nearby San Jose in January.

Though he will be the hometown favorite, he does not believe he will feel any extra pressure when it comes to his performances. “When you are out there competing, the arena is just an arena. It doesn’t really matter where you are. It’s just you and the ice, and skating on home ice isn’t going to help you land a quad Lutz,” the 16-year-old said. “I won the novice title in San Jose in 2012. I had no pressure then and the crowd did not cheer as loudly as they might at this level, but I am pretty good at handling pressure-packed situations, so I don’t think it will get to me.

“But, as a returning medalist, there will be pressure to place in the top three in San Jose. I will do what I always do, and try my absolute best. “Right now, it’s too early to talk about that, so I’ll continue to practice hard so that I can be prepared when that time comes.”

(Originally published in the October 2017 issue of IFS)