‘Better safe than sorry’ — After teammate tests positive for COVID, Nathan Chen says he’s being extra careful

“My heart goes out to him,” Salt Lake City skater says, as Vincent Zhou withdraws from competition

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen (USA) competes in the men’s short program of the figure skating team event during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.

Beijing • Nathan Chen didn’t find it too strange that teammate Vincent Zhou wasn’t on the podium when Team USA received trinkets for its second-place finish in team figure skating during a venue ceremony at Capital Indoor Stadium. He assumed Zhou was at practice.

It wasn’t until the Salt Lake City skater was at the training facility himself later Monday afternoon that he learned Zhou had tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the first day of the men’s singles figure skating competition at the Beijing 2022 Olympics.

“My heart goes out to him,” Chen said. “I know how tough that must be, and I can’t even imagine what it must feel like. So I’m, you know, pulling for him. Hopefully he’ll be able to get out of it.”

Zhou received a positive test Monday, according to a news release from U.S. Figure Skating. The release said Zhou, the runner-up to Chen at the national championships last month, would be able to compete in the men’s short program Tuesday if he produces a negative COVID test. But Zhou announced later that his positive test was forcing him to withdraw from the individual events.

Jason Brown, the USA’s third entry in men’s singles, expressed shock when he learned of Zhou’s test at a news conference Monday afternoon. Brown shares an apartment with Zhou but has his own room. He said he hasn’t been with Zhou in the common area except in passing.

Still, it’s one more thing to worry about.

“It is tough,” said Brown, whose coach tested positive for the virus shortly before the team left for China. “And I think especially, you know, when you talk about the Olympic Games and you work for so many years and you kind of manage and kind of try to focus on what you can control and exploit along the way and, like, how to navigate every point of the Games, and then this curveball comes in the way, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And, you know, it’s just something that you have to deal with the best that you can and just try to keep your head up and keep moving forward.”

(David J. Phillip | AP) Silver medalists Team United States stand on the podium during the victory ceremony after the team event in the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Beijing.

Chen said he has had little contact with Zhou while in Beijing. He has been ultra careful to avoid situations that would put him in contact with the virus, he said. That includes isolating himself when eating in the athlete cafeteria and pulling down his double masks for only a brief moment before taking a bite.

“It might be overkill,” he said of his eating habits, “but better safe than sorry at this point.”

Between skating sessions, Chen said he mostly hangs out with his roommates and women’s singles skater and training partner Mariah Bell in his apartment — with everyone double masked and socially distanced, he said — or he plays his guitar.

Still, he said he has enjoyed this Olympic experience even more than in 2018, when he indicated the pressure of competition kept him from soaking in the moments.

“The fact that we’re here is already enough,” Chen said. “And no matter what the situation is, like, we want to have this opportunity to be at the Olympics and we’re just really fortunate to be here.”

Chen is scheduled to be the third to last of the 30 competitors to skate his short program Tuesday. By then, he will know the score of 2018 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who is expected to be Chen’s biggest obstacle to bringing home the gold medal. Hanyu skates 21st. Brown will wrap up the competition.