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Zippy Zhou rotates his way to novice men's lead

Inspired by Dornbush, California skater sparkles on, off ice

Vincent Zhou proved masterful both on the ice and then later with the press.
Vincent Zhou proved masterful both on the ice and then later with the press. (Tom Briglia)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2012) - If he ever gets tired of skating, Vincent Zhou might make a good stand-up comedian.

The 11-year-old from Palo Alto set nearby San Jose's HP Pavilion alight Sunday afternoon with a sparkling routine to Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Nutrocker" that gained lots of appreciative "oohs" and "aahs" from the U.S. Championships crowd.

"The audience reaction was huge," Zhou said. "It was the first partial standing ovation of my life, not that I've lived very long."

The diminutive dynamo, who rotates his triple jumps like a helicopter propeller, hit a triple Lutz-double toe combination followed by a solid triple flip. His spins gained Level 4, and although his final element, a double Axel, was called under-rotated, he still notched 52.45 points and a 1.60-point lead.

"I've had higher scores, but I'm very happy," Zhou said. "My program components were high (25.49), and before they weren't that good. I have to work on skating out [to the audience]."

Last season's intermediate men's champion, Zhou was tipped to shine in San Jose, having scored the nation's highest novice point total in winning Pacific Coast Sectionals. Coming into the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, he trained so hard his coach Tammy Gambill said she had to tell him to give it a rest.

"He's very strong at this age," Gambill said, as her pupil grinned and flexed a bicep. "I have to hold him back sometimes."

"I can't peak too early," Zhou said. "I can't be more senior than the seniors."

Maybe he just wants to wring every minute's worth of ice time he can. He and his mom, Fay Ge, make a 400-plus mile drive from their Palo Alto home across California each week to Riverside, where Gambill trains her pupils. Usually, they depart on Sunday and return on Friday.

Zhou says sharing the ice with U.S. silver medalist Ricky Dornbush, another Gambill student, makes the long drive worth it.

"I train with Ricky every week day," said Zhou, who attends Capistrano Connections Academy, an online charter school. "He's someone I can look up to. At home, I watch his [U.S. Championships] free skate from last season every night."

Dornbush has competition, though.

"Right now, my favorite is Patrick Chan," Zhou said. "Not because he gets big points [300+ at the 2012 Canadian Figure Skating Championships] but because he has a sunny personality. He's always smiling."

Kevin Shum, who placed second to Zhou at Pacific Coast Sectionals, sits second here after his lyrical program to Robert Longfield's "Vortex" earned 50.85 points.

Although Shum's triple flip received a deduction for an incorrect outside edge take-off, he made up for it with a solid triple Lutz-double toe combination, strong double Axel and Level 4 spins, including an attractive camel position.

"I think I skated really well," Shum, 14, said. "I'm proud of myself."

Shum, the final skater to take the ice, had to make a special effort to manage his nerves.

"I don't like skating last," the Piedmont High School freshman said. "I had to put myself in my comfort zone. I imagined myself back home in the rink.

"I've been skating pretty well. That's the first time I put the triple Lutz in my short and I felt comfortable with it."

"There are a lot of friendly faces here around the boards, and I think that helped," said Shum's coach, Lynn Smith, who trains the skater in nearby Oakland.

Midwesterner Nicholas Vrdoljak's clean routine to music from Man in the Iron Mask took third with 46.60 points. The 15-year-old hit a triple Lutz-double toe and triple flip.

"I'm very happy with what I did," he said. "I had a blast. I think it was a little bit better than at sectionals. The experience is great, and I love being here."

"His jumping passes were good," said Cindy Caprel, who coaches Vrdoljak in the Chicago area. "It was a little slow, for him. He had a lot to work on this season and he's accomplished quite a bit."

Vrdoljak hopes to add a solid free skate to his list of achievements.

"I would be happy with two good programs here," he said.

James Schetelich of New Jersey skated an upbeat Latin routine to place fourth with 46.45 points.