Before COVID Cut Short His Beijing Olympic Dreams, Vincent Zhou Got Candid About Greatness and Pressure

Vincent Zhou confirmed his positive test in an emotional video message on Monday, though he also vowed: "This is not the end. This is the setup for a bigger comeback"

Figure skater Vincent Zhou had already cried so many tears — some happy, mostly sad — when he turned on his camera, late Monday, to share a message with the world and with himself.

"I have no idea how to start this video off properly, so I'm just gonna get started," he said in an Instagram post.

Over the next five minutes, with tears at times running down his cheeks, the 21-year-old confirmed he tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of his next competition and his Beijing Winter Olympics were instead at an end.

He had skated only once, in an underwhelming showing in the team event where Team USA nonetheless earned second place, buoyed by season's best showings by Nathan Chen, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue and others.

When the other American skaters gathered to celebrate their success, Zhou was in quarantine back in his room awaiting the confirmation of what was already true.

It was all so abrupt and, despite his every precaution, so unexpected — Zhou was left in the lurch of what seemed like every emotion at once. Gratitude and despair; confusion, humility, pride. Sorrow.

"I've isolated myself so much that the loneliness I've felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times," he said in his video message. "The enormity of the situation, the — just — the pain of it all."

Why him? he wondered. "I've been doing everything in my power to stay free of COVID since the start of the pandemic," he said.

Still, he knew, "I am more than just another positive COVID test."

"I do recognize this absolutely does not define me as an athlete, as a person," he said.

With a deep, shuddering breath, Zhou began to wrap up his video.

"I'm not good at making these types of videos and I have a feeling that I'm going on for too long and I should close this out before I become even more of an emotional wreck," he said. "I've already lost count of the number of times I've cried today. But I'm happy to say that at least one of those times was happy tears."

"And that," he continued, "was when I found out that I became an Olympic silver medalist."

That hadn't been Zhou's goal in his return to Olympic ice, after a sixth-place appearance at the 2018 Winter Games.

"One or two seasons ago I realized it's not really helping me at all to hold myself down to second place or third place or whatever," he told PEOPLE, weeks before leaving for Beijing. "I should just think about giving it everything I have and if I win, I win. If I don't, well that's just how things played out that day. But I decided to finally stop holding myself back."

The freedom bore fruit: "This season at Skate America, I won that competition. Nobody, including myself, thought that was going to happen," he said. Indeed, in winning that event, Zhou defeated Olympic gold medal favorite Nathan Chen — Chen's first competition loss in three seasons.

Zhou, too, was a serious podium contender.

"I'm a very, very analytical and thorough thinker," he told PEOPLE. "I think about everything at once, what I think about when I'm thinking about when I'm doing it."

"I'm also very perfectionist," Zhou admitted, "but the ability to be very detail-oriented and self-aware has made me able to understand my skating in new ways every time I get back on the ice and train another day. So I find myself constantly realizing new things and taking these small steps forward. I've learned to appreciate the small victories every day."

After all the years of work — the endless hike up the mountain of his sport, his competitors thinning with the altitude — and he kept going up and up and up.

Vincent Zhou
Vincent Zhou. Tom Pennington/Getty

He told PEOPLE in January that he knew the ever-increasing physicality of championship skating meant he likely didn't have in him as many as four Olympics, as he had once dreamed. "It takes its toll," he said.

After this season, he planned to return to Brown University and cultivate other passions. Maybe business.

"It becomes a pretty lonely journey. … The higher up you get, the less people there are," he said. He was grateful for the support he had, though it didn't diminish the weight of what he wanted to do.

"You know the saying, 'It takes a village.' It really does. There's a ton of people in the team and in the immediate vicinity of any high-level athlete. So in no way am I discrediting any of them and the contribution they've made my career by saying that I'm kind of used to feeling a little bit lonely," he said. "But while there is a team around any high-level athlete at any given moment, the pressure is definitely very isolating."

This season was Zhou's best on the international stage — a breakthrough. "I've learned to appreciate the small victories every day," he said (like solving the problem of how he had been technically accomplishing one of his jumps).

"I feel like a completely different person from four years ago, and I think I'm all the better for it," he told PEOPLE.

This was also a season when he found himself so focused on skating that there wasn't as much time for other things. Living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Zhou loves to hike: "The Rocky Mountains are in my backyard." But the rush wasn't worth the chance of a mistake. "I don't want to take any risks, don't want to get injured doing stupid stuff," he said.

In the weeks before leaving for China, Zhou instead focused on training, resting, recovering; balancing his skating with his press obligations and Team USA prep; and then repeating the cycle. He relaxed at home; he read; he listened to music. (One of his favorite genres? "Melodic dubstep.")

"Last time I was 17 years old going to the Olympics. This time I'm more experienced," Zhou told PEOPLE. "I kind of know what to expect. I know a lot more about myself and how I function in my sport, in training, under pressure, in different sorts of circumstances."

"It's not going to be as much like last time when I first walked into the Olympic Village. It was like, 'Ooh, shiny, ooh, shiny. A piece of candy here, piece of candy there,' " he continued. "Now I'm going to be much more focused on my goals and the task at hand."

Vincent Zhou
Figure skater Vincent Zhou competes in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Jean Catuffe/Getty
Vincent Zhou
Figure skater Vincent Zhou competes in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Jean Catuffe/Getty

Zhou said then that he was looking forward to the added significance of competing in Beijing, as the son of two Beijing natives. "My extended family is all from Beijing, and most of them still live there. So it's a very special place to me," he told PEOPLE.

"My free skate music is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a Chinese, martial arts-themed free skate, and Beijing is probably one of the most appropriate settings I could ask for to skate that program at the Olympics," he said.

He got to skate it once, in the team event where he ultimately earned a silver. But that skate was weakened by mistakes, including under-rotated quadruple jumps — what should have been a signature strength.

But the team event meant Zhou shared in the other skaters' successes. In his Instagram video on Monday, he called them "my absolutely incredible superhuman teammates."

It would just take some time for him to appreciate his own victory.

"It was always my dream to medal on an Olympic stage," he said in his video. "Which," he added with a rueful laugh, "I did accomplish before this happened."

But "the overarching dream was just to skate," he said. "If I didn't love this, I wouldn't still be doing this."

Vincent Zhou
Vincent Zhou at Skate America in 2021. Jamie Squire/Getty

Instead of the world, Zhou then addressed his future self — the one who had already made the 8-year-old boy he used to be so proud.

"And you know why? Because you lived out your dreams. You became the person you always aspired to be," he said, with tears gathering. "When you were young, sitting on the couch, watching those great skaters on TV, studying their jumps every night at the dinner table and warming up at 4 a.m. or earlier to go into the rink and skate and do double jumps — you had no idea what you were getting into. But you had a dream and you followed it."

"You made sacrifices for it and you dedicated your life to it and today you are that person, Vincent," he told himself. "You made it happen."

To learn more about Team USA, visit Watch the Winter Olympics, now, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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