It has been a long and winding road to the top for Vincent Zhou, one that has been fraught with injury, disappointment and scattered success.

Following a 25th place finish in the short program at the 2021 World Championships, a result that precluded him from contesting the free skate — and, in turn, securing a third spot for the U.S. at the 2022 Olympic Games — many wondered what the young American would bring to the table this season. Though Zhou had kept a low profile during the offseason, he was hard at work behind the scenes, determined to bring a better version of himself to the international stages this year.

Zhou tested the waters at the Cranberry Cup International in Boston in mid-August. First after the short, he boldly attempted five quads in his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” free skate — Lutz, flip, toe and two Salchows — and won the event with 288.26 points.

On the heels of that result, Zhou was assigned to Nebelhorn Trophy, the final qualifying competition for the 2022 Winter Games. It was an opportunity, he said, to atone for what had happened six months earlier in Stockholm. Zhou did not disappoint in Oberstdorf, winning the competition with a total tally of 284.23 and putting a 40.45-point margin between himself and the runner up. Once again, he went for an ambitious program that included four quads. As with his first event, he incurred a number of deductions for jumps landed on the quarter (q) as well as an under-rotation, but it was mission accomplished, having earned the third Olympic spot for his nation.

The 21-year-old, who is co-coached by Mie Hamada and Tom Zakrajsek and Drew Meekins in Colorado Springs, described his success as a relief and said he was “very grateful to have won an Olympic spot for the USA. I can skate even better. I’m competing pretty consistently this season and this is just another building block.”

A month later he headed to Las Vegas for Skate America. There he took many by surprise by defeating Japan’s Shoma Uno and his teammate Nathan Chen to claim his first Grand Prix title with 295.66 points. “I didn’t really expect this result, but what I did expect of myself was to be as well prepared and well trained as I possibly could,” Zhou said at the time. “I think just focusing on that every single day at home led to making the seemingly impossible become possible. I hope that is a recurring theme for the rest of this season.”

In mid-November he headed to Japan for his second Grand Prix event, NHK Trophy, where he once again went up against Uno, who won the short program by a 3.07-point margin. But things went downhill in the free skate. Zhou opened the program by popping a planned quad Lutz, was hit by under-rotation calls on both quad Salchows and a triple Axel, and two other jumps were deemed landed on the quarter. He finished sixth in the segment and received 260.69 points, his lowest score of the season to date. Nonetheless, on the strength of his short program he remained in second place overall.

“I am very disappointed with my free skate. Thankfully it happened here and not at the Olympic Games. I am glad that I got this out of my system now and not next February,” he said. “I was not able to train consistently leading up to this competition and it showed. I need to make sure I am in better health and condition for my next competition.”

That next competition will be the Grand Prix Final, which takes place in Japan, Dec. 9-12. After four full seasons on the senior circuit, this is the first time Zhou has punched a ticket to a Final. That event will be a rematch of Skate America between Zhou, Uno and Chen … throw Yuma Kagiyama into the mix … get ready for a showdown in Osaka.