“I just wanted to understand the history a little better and hopefully avoid saying anything stupid that I didn’t know about,” he said.
Before testing positive, Zhou was part of the U.S. group that finished second in the team event. He would have missed the medal ceremony if not for Valieva’s case postponing the celebratory moment. And despite the disappointing fate of his Games, Zhou could end up with a gold — if Valieva is retroactively disqualified when her case is resolved. He’ll get to be part of the moment when the athletes receive their medals, but the International Olympic Committee has said that won’t happen during the Games. As Zhou and his teammates wait, the 21-year-old said he hopes the process doesn’t stretch on for years.
“I’m proud to have competed clean my entire life,” Zhou said this week during a teleconference after his week-long isolation ended. “And it definitely is a pretty shocking and scary situation we have going on here, where I would understand completely if the ladies didn’t exactly trust the integrity of the competition and the fairness of everything.”
Zhou, who placed sixth at the 2018 Games, didn’t have the opportunity to compete for an individual medal in Beijing. He didn’t watch the men’s event because it was too emotional, but he praised the way fellow Americans Nathan Chen (gold medalist) and Jason Brown (sixth) performed. And now Zhou is left wondering how he might have landed in the mix.
“It also was very difficult for me seeing the results because I knew I could have medaled,” Zhou said. “I had been training consistently at that level where I could deliver well enough to pull a score like that and win the bronze medal.”
Zhou plans to compete at next month’s world championships, where he has placed as high as third in 2019. He doesn’t want to add too much pressure to the event, but in a way, Zhou said, the competition might feel a bit like his “personal Olympics.”
Zhou’s lone performance in Beijing came in the team event as the U.S. representative in the men’s free skate. Zhou didn’t perform his best and finished third out of five competitors. He doesn’t blame his illness, noting that he didn’t have symptoms at the time.
But the test he took that day is the one that eventually came back positive. He still doesn’t know how he caught the virus, and the rest of the U.S. figure skaters managed to stay virus-free. The Americans often wore masks during practices and warmup periods when they weren’t required to do so. Zhou also had been hypervigilant.
“Everything short from moving to Antarctica, I think I’ve taken lots of precautions,” Zhou said. “I try to eat away from people. I chew with my mask on. I think it’s just really unfortunate, a stroke of bad luck.”
Zhou heard the news of his positive test the same day the U.S. team clinched the silver medal. The skaters celebrated together on the ice, but Zhou could not take part. They recorded a video message for Zhou and offered sympathy.
Zhou said he had mild symptoms, and he stayed in isolation for about a week. He had some space in the hotel room, so he did some off-ice workouts and program walk-throughs. He tried to take time to breathe and reflect, while also maintaining a normal sleep and eating schedule.
“It was definitely not an easy week,” he said. “Some days [were] worse than others, but I did my best to do what any athlete at the Olympics should if something like this happens.”
He had support from his teammates, his friends and some celebrities. Josh Groban, who sings the song Zhou uses for his short program, reached out, and that was “a really wholesome moment,” he said.
Zhou, now out of isolation, has returned to practice and will take part in the exhibition gala. He wanted to perform his short program, the one he didn’t have the chance to skate in Beijing, but that’s not allowed. He’ll skate to “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles instead.
“Regardless,” Zhou said, “it definitely will carry more significance for me because it’s that touch on Olympic ice.”