BEIJING — They stood together on a makeshift podium on the Capital Indoor Stadium ice early Monday afternoon, eight of the nine members of the U.S. figure skating team, celebrating its first silver medal in the Olympic team event. They wore matching blue jackets and pants, balancing on skates and about to be handed stuffed pandas as mementos.
Suddenly, Karen Chen looked around.
“Where’s Vincent?” she remembered asking.
She had been wondering this for several minutes, ever since the event had ended and they had gathered with the gold medal team representing the Russian Olympic Committee and bronze medalist Japan behind a gate that led to the ice. Vincent Zhou, the United States’ second-best male skater, who had finished third in the previous day’s men’s free skate, was missing. At first she wondered if he had been late to the rink or maybe was putting on his skates. But then teammate Evan Bates whispered what most of the others had been told a few minutes earlier:
Zhou’s coronavirus test from Sunday had come back positive.
So while Chen and the other skaters who had been part of the team event climbed the platform beside the Russian team, Zhou was elsewhere, awaiting the result of a confirmation test. If the second test were to come back negative, he would still be able to compete in the men’s individual event beginning Tuesday, but that glimmer of hope died Monday night when he announced on Instagram that he will be forced to withdraw.
“It’s pretty unreal that of all the people, it would happen to myself,” Zhou said during an emotional five-minute video he posted. “And that’s not just because I’m still processing this turn of events but also because I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of covid since the start of the pandemic.”
At the medal ceremony, the Russians held hands and jumped as one on the ice. The Japanese skaters clapped. And the Americans had someone bring over a phone so they could stand in front of their flag and record a video for Zhou.
“We wish you were here, and we miss you, and thank you for your contributions,” Madison Hubbell later said they told him.
It was a weird moment in a weird Olympics for an American team that had a weird path to the silver. The United States had finished third in the two other Games in which the team event had been held. But it stormed to a great start Friday, with Nathan Chen and the dance team of Hubbell and Zachary Donohue putting the Americans in first. The lead collapsed on Sunday’s second day after Karen Chen and Zhou stumbled in their performances and the Russian team all but clinched the gold. By late Monday morning, even a silver looked precarious following a fifth-place finish by the pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazer.
And yet, just as the Americans looked to be slinking toward another bronze, the dance team of Madison Chock and Bates delivered a near-flawless free skate that put them in first, ahead of the acclaimed Russian team of Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, clinching the silver. Karen Chen followed with a free skate that was strong despite a fourth-place finish behind Russian star Kamila Valieva, who became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics.
“We were very aware of what was going on,” Chock said. “We were in the team box watching all the events, but that doesn’t change what we do when we get on the ice and we need to focus on our job in order to support the team.”
“I think it was hard to be completely oblivious to the nature of the scores,” Bates said. “At the end of the day, we just focused on what we could do to contribute in a significant way. We knew we could win the free dance.”
Later, he was asked whether he was disappointed that the Americans wouldn’t win gold.
“We’re celebrating silver,” he said. “Winning a silver medal is an achievement.”
Nonetheless, the gloom of the Zhou news hung over the victory. At least outwardly, the Americans didn’t show concern that they could be next to test positive. The apartment-style rooms they have at the Athletes’ Village are built in pods around a common area, but they rarely find themselves gathering in those open spaces. They also are on different practice and competition schedules, so they rarely run into one another. Jason Brown, one of Zhou’s podmates, said he had not seen Zhou in the common area since they had arrived in China.
“I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt the last month or two has been crushing at times,” Zhou said in his Instagram video. “The enormity of the situation, the pain of it all, is pretty insane.”
Earlier, his teammates celebrated the silver without him, holding their pandas aloft. Because medal ceremonies at this Olympics will be held at a central medal stand near the main stadium, no one had actual medals to hold. The pandas had to suffice. The skaters laughed. They smiled. They took pictures.
Only later did they realize that Zhou’s name hadn’t been announced at the ceremony. It was almost as though he had never been there at all.
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