Seventeen-year-old figure skater Vincent Zhou made his Winter Olympic debut on Friday morning (Thursday night stateside) and, other than the season-best short program he delivered in the men’s individual event, maybe his most memorable experience yet has been surviving the elements.
“I would say the wildest moment so far is being blown around by the wind,” he tells PEOPLE, noting sardonically: “Especially because I weigh 130 lbs. — if it had blown any harder, I would probably have a concussion.”
The skating events are being held on the coast of South Korea, in Gangneung, which has been buffeted by severe winds in recent days. (Similar gusts also complicated some of the competitions held in the mountains.)
On Wednesday officials temporarily halted activities to the Gangneung Olympic Plaza, an outdoor space connecting several venues. The temporary facilities for media were closed for a time as well. The weather died down again on Thursday.
Zhou, though, made it through — and when he took the ice third out of the 30 men’s skaters, he delivered a short program set to Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” that earned him a total score of 84.53.
With that he leapt to the top of the rankings, where he stayed until the 12th skater, Canada’s Keegan Messing, bumped him to No. 2.
The men’s short program at the 2018 Winter Olympics is continuing into Friday afternoon local time.
Speaking to reporters after he competed, Zhou appeared visibly pleased with his performance, which was marred by only a few errors, including an under-rotation on his first jump and a slip on another.
Before his skate began, he said, “My entire life kind of went through my head”: “Everything I’ve done to get here, from my earlier childhood memories of skating to moving to Southern California with my mom, who left her job to be with me, and all my injuries and comebacks.”
“I didn’t 100 percent know what to expect because the Olympics is so different from everything, well from anything else I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “But I just try my best to stay in the moment and ice is ice, just skate, that’s your job, that’s what I tried to focus on. I hoped that I would have a better quality on all of my jumps, but for the most part I got my job done and I can’t say I’m disappointed. I would say that I’m pretty pleased with how I skated.”
In the fall before he qualified for Team USA, Zhou, who grew up in Palo Alto, California, told PEOPLE the Games were “what I’ve been dreaming of.”
“When I was 3, my dad took me to the local ice rink to have fun, and I was on the ice — I wasn’t able to move, I could only stand there — and my dad came and held my hand and dragged me around the rink,” Zhou said then.
“My actual skating career didn’t start until I was 5-and-a-half and my friend had a birthday party. After that, my parents decided to sign me up for lessons.”
With time, the after-school hobby became something more, ultimately leading to highlights such as the junior national figure skating championship, in 2013, and a second- and third-place finish at the senior level of the national championships in 2017 and 2018.
“At first it was just another thing to do after school, somewhere else to channel my energy, but it kind of stuck with me and started getting up earlier to do it, and spending more time,” Zhou told PEOPLE last year. “Eventually, I was sacrificing a lot just to skate.”