History was made last week when a Japanese company chose to sponsor a foreign skater and their training expenses for the first time as the Kinoshita Group agreed to back American Vincent Zhou.
The conglomerate, best known for housing development and real estate ventures, announced on its website last Tuesday that it would be supporting the 18-year-old, with a contract endorsed by CEO Naoya Kinoshita.
Zhou, a native of San Jose, California, has been coming on strong the past couple of seasons. He was the bronze medalist at the world championships last season behind compatriot Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu, one year after finishing sixth at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
There have been instances in the past where Japanese corporations have hired foreign skaters for endorsement deals. American Janet Lynn was the first back in the 1970s, after she turned professional, when Calpis signed her. Descente also had a deal with 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton of the United States for apparel in the 1980s.
More recently, Shiseido contracted Pyeongchang Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia last year to be a global brand ambassador for its personal care company.
Ice Time got the exclusive story about how the relationship with the Kinoshita Group came about in an interview with Zhou on Saturday before he skated in the Dreams On Ice show in Yokohama.
The nexus of the pact was the relationship that coach Mie Hamada maintains with both the company and Zhou. The legendary mentor of four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara, last season’s Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira, and many others over the years, Hamada’s compassion for her charges is well known. It was because of her that the watershed agreement was consummated.
“First, I’m really excited that they (Kinoshita Group) will be part of my journey to the 2022 Olympics,” Zhou told Ice Time. “Second, I’m really grateful to Mr. Kinoshita and to Hamada-sensei for helping to initiate contact.
“I think I’m really lucky that I was able to work out a partnership with them. They also sponsor some other Japanese skaters (Miyahara, Koshiro Shimada) and it’s actually my first big sponsor,” Zhou noted. “I don’t really have many big sponsors. Financially, skating is a big struggle, so I am super grateful that there are people that are willing to support my journey.
“It’s exciting, it’s new, but I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do for them and they can do for me,” Zhou added.
Zhou cited his strong showing at the worlds and World Team Trophy as being responsible for raising his profile in the past six months.
“Potential sponsors keep an eye out for talent in the skating world, so with my progress in the second half of last season, lots of people I feel like started to turn their eyes towards me and notice me a little more,” Zhou commented.
It speaks to the state of the popularity of skating in the U.S. when a talent like Zhou, who was the 2017 world junior champion and a national senior medalist the past three seasons, has to look abroad for sponsorship.
Here is a young man who was born in the heart of Silicon Valley, who will be going to an Ivy League school (Brown) in the fall, yet companies located there like Apple, Facebook and Google never stepped up to back the local product. It’s an absolute disgrace that corporations generating billions of dollars in revenue annually overlook somebody like Zhou.
Zhou admitted that he and his family had a heart-to-heart talk with Hamada about his financial situation and that is when the coach stepped up and did something about it.
“When I came here to Japan to work with Hamada-sensei, my mom and I talked to her about my situation with skating and money,” Zhou commented. “She is very understanding about this and willing to help her students. She contacted Mr. Kinoshita and we met at the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka. We talked a little and went over some things and everything was set. Honestly, they made it pretty easy for me. I’m lucky to have these people on my team supporting me. It’s not something that all skaters or athletes have.”
Ice Time asked Zhou about the terms of the contract.
“It’s just for one year now,” Zhou said, while not disclosing the financial aspect of it. “We will meet again at the end of the coming season. We will rediscuss, but hopefully I can get some good results this season and show potential for 2022.”
Multiple requests for comment on the deal from the Kinoshita Group were not responded to by press time.
Zhou acknowledged that it was unusual for a skater to receive such backing from a company not based in the same country.
“When looking for sponsorship in foreign countries, one of the first things they ask is what country I represent,” Zhou remarked. “If I don’t represent their home country, it’s instantly a turnoff. I’m really super lucky. The most important thing that helped bring this about is my relationship with Coach Hamada. Because I have a good relationship with her, she is willing to say good things about me to people who are keeping an eye out for sponsorships.”
Training in two countries
I wondered what Zhou’s practice schedule would be like with him being coached by both Hamada and Tammy Gambill in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I’m matriculating at Brown University in the fall semester, so I pretty much won’t be able to go to Japan at all,” Zhou stated. “I will be training in Boston, which is an hour-and- a-half drive from Providence (Rhode Island), where Brown is. It will be a very difficult semester. I will be away for several weeks due to international competitions.”
Zhou pointed out the difficulty of being an elite skater and a college student simultaneously.
“It’s unusual for student-athletes to be out for even two weeks during a semester, so to be gone five weeks is going to be hard,” Zhou commented. “I have to communicate individually with each professor and work something out. I’m currently trying to do that now in the process of course selection. I’m emailing professors and seeing if there are any resources or tools I can use.
“As for the skating, it will be difficult balancing the college and skating. I won’t be able to train like I am used to. Sometimes I will be training under different conditions — mental, physical fatigue — I may not be used to.”
Zhou highlighted how just tough his new challenge will be.
“Having school on your mind can affect your skating and vice versa,” Zhou noted. “I’ll be doing a lot of catch up and work during competitions, as any student-athlete should when they are away for competitions.
“It’s just a new thing for me. I’m a little nervous, but I’m also super excited because when you get stuck in the skating world everything can seem so small and closed,” Zhou continued. “It’s really exciting for me to experience new things and connect with people outside the skating world. Try seeing some different perspectives. All in all, I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m excited.”
Ice Time wanted to know if Zhou would be heading back to Japan after the school term is finished around the holidays and before the U.S. nationals next January. It turns out he is fortunate that Brown has a flexible system that he can utilize.
“I’m only doing the fall semester, and Brown allowed me to take a gap semester or gap year toward the 2022 Olympics,” Zhou said. “Hopefully I will be able to. Coach Hamada has been a great asset on my team. It would be good to try and come back to Japan if only for a week or so, just to brush up on some things.
“I’m sure after four months, one semester, of training on my own I will need some technique reinforcement.”
I queried Zhou about his housing arrangements in Osaka while training with Hamada.
“The past two weeks I was staying in a hotel and I would walk and take the bus to the (Kansai University) rink,” Zhou said. “I think after this Coach Hamada has found like a house where I can stay and I think that will be a little better than a hotel, a little more comfortable.
“She doesn’t just help with the on-ice stuff, she is also very caring about the off-ice stuff and making sure the skaters have the conditions they need to train at their best.”
Goals for 2019-20 season
Ice Time wanted to hear what Zhou’s aspirations are for the coming season.
“I hope to make the Grand Prix Final,” he said. “I hope to medal at worlds again. Nationals — second, first, who knows?”
Zhou realizes that results could be especially difficult for him in the coming campaign not only because of his school commitments, but also while trying to recover from a strained ligament in his left knee suffered two months ago during a Stars On Ice tour in the U.S.
“It is going to be hard making the final, because college, I don’t know how it will affect my skating,” Zhou commented. “I’m sure challenges will come up that I don’t expect. I’m sure challenges that I already do expect will be harder than I expect.
“But I will be very happy to qualify for the final. I will have to work very hard to get there, because coming back from my knee injury. I told myself I was going to stay healthy this summer and not do anything stupid, but at the least expected moment I got hurt.
“It’s not an overuse injury,” Zhou remarked. “It’s not like I let myself slip into my old, bad training habits. It was a sudden thing that I could not have anticipated — bad luck. It was very unfortunate. It may or may not have an affect on the coming season. I just try to look at things through a realistic lens.
“Where are the time periods where I can improve? Where are the time periods where I will be traveling and a mess of stuff will be happening and can’t make much progress? I’m really trying to map things out in my head.
“Those are my goals, ambitious goals for what is sure to be a difficult season,” Zhou said. “Without ambition I wouldn’t be here.”
Ice Time wondered if Zhou had consulted with Chen, who just completed his freshman year at Yale University.
“I have not talked to him,” Zhou stated. “I want to say my situation and his situation are a little different. I don’t want to make any assumptions. I believe he trains at Yale. They have an ice rink for him. Brown’s ice rink, the time is all rented out to local hockey teams. I can skate at either 7 a.m. or 12 a.m. So that means I have to commute every day. I will only be able to train one session every day.”
Zhou identified another issue he faces while being ranked behind world champion Chen.
“Because I am not No. 1 in the U.S., I don’t have the chance to pick what competitions I go to,” Zhou noted. “I can’t just pick my break weeks to go to Grand Prix.
“I feel like it is kind of a different situation between me and him,” Zhou continued. “All props to him for accomplishing what he has done while attending Yale. That’s incredible. In my mind it doesn’t compare that well. I do look forward to the challenge.”
As our conversation wound down, I circled back to something Hamada told Ice Time in a previous interview. She said that she had been asked over the years by other foreign skaters to train them, but could not because of the strict rules at the rink where she works.
I asked Zhou why he thinks he became the chosen one.
“I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but I know that I am extremely lucky to be able to establish a strong relationship with her,” Zhou commented. “Pretty much nobody else is that lucky. I know of a lot of skaters that want to work with her but aren’t able to do so due to some policies with the federations or whatever. I don’t even know
“I’m super lucky. I’m grateful that she is willing to help me. She has helped me more than I could have ever imagined.”