Under the Surface

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Issue 13, Volume 113

By Kaileen So 

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For most of us, the Olympics are something we watch on TV once every two years, but on Wednesday, March 29, courtesy of the Sophomore Caucus, part of the Olympics came to Stuyvesant––in the form of two-time Olympic figure skater and medalist, two-time World Championships bronze medalist, 14-time major ISU medalist, nine-time national medalist, three-time national champion, and 2021 Skate America Champion Vincent Zhou. Before his Stuyvesant visit, we interviewed Zhou, who is currently a college sophomore studying economics at Brown University, to gain some insight about his athletic career.

Watching athletes compete on TV can create a sense that elites on the screen need to be devoid of human vulnerabilities in order to reach their elite level of success. However, the reality is that to reach the pinnacle of their sport, part of an athlete’s “training” is to conquer, or at least manage, common challenges such as self-doubt, anxiety, and inner demons. “Throughout my athletic career, the greatest challenge I’ve faced has been myself,” Zhou said. Zhou speaks often about the mental challenges he has encountered through social media and in interviews.

One particularly cruel and unfortunate obstacle came during last year’s Olympics when Zhou tested positive for COVID-19 during arguably the most important week of his life. In the month leading up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Zhou took every health precaution possible to avoid COVID, from only interacting with the handful of people he would be traveling to the Olympics with to double masking. Despite all his efforts, the day before the men’s individual event, Zhou tested positive for COVID and was forced to withdraw. Adding insult to injury, roadblocks were thrown in his way even until the end of the Olympics, as Zhou was denied entry to the Closing Ceremony for being flagged as a COVID close-contact risk, despite being allowed to perform in the figure skating exhibition earlier the same day. While these events were devastating, especially mentally, Zhou found the motivation to push past these setbacks and compete at the Figure Skating World Championships in Montpellier, France about a month after the Olympics. When asked about his thoughts at that point, Zhou described that upon entering the competition, he remained concentrated on the present moment and not his past shortcomings. “It doesn’t matter how I skated yesterday; it only matters how I perform in this one moment,” he said. In a testament to the power of his mental tenacity, Zhou skated two memorable programs at the World Championship and finished on the podium, taking home the bronze medal.

As many athletes have experienced, Zhou faces days of great exhaustion, yet he emphasizes the importance of developing mental strength to keep training. “I tell myself, if I can do this now, just imagine what I can do when I’m feeling good. Going into a competition, I want the knowledge that I’ve done this with my hands tied behind my back, I’ve done this in my sleep, I’ve done this feeling terrible in training, I’ve done it anyway, and I can do this again now,” Zhou said. 

Preparing for competitions is nerve-racking for all athletes, including Zhou, who uses a robust procedure to minimize stress before taking to the ice in front of millions. In the hours and days leading up to competitions, Zhou believes that the best way to combat tension is to develop micro- and macro-routines of normalcy during practices and to stick to them at the actual events. Once on the ice, Zhou likes to imagine that he is back at his home rink skating a normal practice program. “Then the pressure starts to dissipate a little bit,” he said. In every sport, it is incredibly easy to let early mistakes taint the rest of the performance. Zhou stresses the importance of taking the focus away from the mistake, and instead, staying in the moment for the rest of the program. “Even if you mess up the first element and you save the rest of the program, you can still do really well. A great program with just one mistake is still a good program,” Zhou said.

 Given all the obstacles he has faced in his career, Zhou is proud to be a vocal mental health advocate. Mental health, including issues such as depression and anxiety, was not something that was discussed throughout Zhou’s upbringing. After facing his mental struggles alone, Zhou understands the significance of having at least one person to turn to. “I hope that people in a similar situation I was in 10 years ago have that person to talk to now,” Zhou said. Especially given the ups and downs over the last year, Zhou believes that having a growth mindset is one of the most important components of stronger mental health. “No matter what happened, if it was good or bad, there’s always something to learn from it and, as a result, grow from it,” Zhou said. Having learned the hard way over the course of his career, Zhou hopes to model these lessons and insights for young people, including us at Stuyvesant.