His voice caught. His voice cracked. He called himself an “emotional wreck” and said he didn’t know exactly how many times he’d broken down since finding out he’d tested positive for COVID-19.
American figure skater Vincent Zhou was sitting in a Beijing hotel room, talking on Instagram. He was trying to process how he went from the dream of the Olympics to quarantined. Just. Like. That.
“The enormity of it all,” he said. “The pain of it all.”
It was gut-wrenching to listen to the 21-year-old Brown University student. He was raw. He was emotional. He was flustered and frustrated. He was honest. This is about the worst nightmare for an Olympian, no matter where they are from.
On the eve of the individual meet, after years of training, after months of trying to avoid this virus, after so many nights of fear that a test would light up anyway … a test lit up anyway.
“I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of COVID,” Zhou said.
Maybe that’s where the heartbreak was the worst, not just in what he lost by missing the competition, but in what was lost in trying not to miss the competition.
“The loneliness I have felt the last month or two has been crushing at times,” Zhou said.
This is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to be a journey. Oh, there is always blood, sweat and tears; setbacks and injuries and doubts. Elite international competition is often as much mental as it is physical. They all know that.
This though, trying to do this during COVID, trying to make it not just to the Olympics, but to an Olympics in a COVID-terrified country with drastic protocols, put an unreal burden on all of the athletes. It’s possible only they truly know what they went through.
It isn’t supposed to be lonely. It isn’t supposed to be crushing. It isn’t supposed to nearly break an otherwise smart, impressive, joyous young man. But it is. But it did.
Zhou was apparently asymptomatic. The Beijing 2022 “playbook” states anyone with symptoms would be taken to a hospital. He was clearly in a hotel and displayed no obvious signs of sickness in his voice or face.
Instead he serves as a reminder of the terrifying high-wire act each Olympian here is trying to walk. At any moment, the highly contagious Omicron variant can set off the daily screening tests required of everyone inside the “closed loop” of a country trying to achieve zero cases. Some 175 athletes have tested positive thus far.
It’s overwhelming. All of it. Zhou’s friend and teammate, Nathan Chen, sounded beaten down the other day when discussing his efforts to avoid getting lost to the protocols.
Chen is a gold medal favorite, a 22-year-old capable of sticking five quads in a single routine. He should be strolling through the Olympic Village having the best two weeks of his life.
Instead, he said he was mostly hiding out in his room, trying to avoid anyone and anything that could derail the entire thing. Chen and Zhou were among the Americans who won a silver medal in the team competition. Yet Zhou missed the ceremony from quarantine. And Chen quickly bailed out on the celebration, apparently too nervous to be near anyone.
Chen said he wears his KN95 mask everywhere, even when it isn’t needed. That includes practice sessions when he is the only person on the ice and, presumably, would get a little better oxygen flow without it.
He knows it isn’t always rational. He’s a statistics and data science major at Yale. But the fear is so great that the mask has become something of a security blanket.
“I feel like I can be more at ease when I am wearing it,” he said.
The excitement of the Olympics, at least the way it should be, just doesn’t exist. This is what they all gave up. This is how it changed them.
They aren’t concerned about competing as much as not getting to compete.
“The only thing is COVID,” Chen said. “That’s the main thing on the back of our mind. We can train as hard as we can, but if a test comes out, a test comes out.”
Just like it did for Zhou.
“I do recognize this does not define me as an athlete, a person,” Zhou said. “I am not just another positive COVID test. I am more than just another face in the crowd.”
He is. He made it to two Olympics. He won a silver. He skated on ice with five rings painted into it.
The dream when he was a little kid, watching on TV from Palo Alto, California, mimicking the moves of the medal winners, rising pre-dawn to hit the rink before school, was mostly just to get here. To get a chance.
“The overarching dream was just to skate,” he said.
Vincent Zhou won’t get to skate. Done in by tests, protocols and a virus that struck at an inopportune time, he was sitting in a hotel room — teared up, torn up and perhaps lonelier than ever.