Rising second-year medical student, athlete Victoria Zhao passes away

Two years ago, high winds in St. Louis threatened the University Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field Championships. For pole vaulter Victoria Zhao, the weather made an already-nerve-wracking event even more daunting, as vaulters take off down the runway to soar a dozen feet in the air.

But amidst the high winds, Zhao homed in, launching into a personal record 3.37-meter pole vault to claim second place in the league. It was not only a career highlight for the student-athlete from Bellevue, Washington, but also a moment that defined the kind of person Zhao was: strong, determined and laser focused on her goals.

This week, members of the Case Western Reserve University community are mourning the sudden death of Zhao early Monday morning. The rising second-year medical student and 2023 alumna was 23.

Photo of Victoria Zhao posing for a photo in London

Since arriving on campus in 2019 for the highly competitive Pre-Professional Scholars Program, which grants undergraduate admission and conditional admission to Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, Zhao showed a strong commitment to academics and athletics. As a biochemistry major, she conducted research in the Kang-Woo Lab on neurodegeneration—an area close to Zhao, as her grandfather suffered from dementia, her parents, Xing Zhao and Xuemei Su, said.

“Both Dr. [David] Kang and I were very impressed by her maturity and intellectual curiosity,” said JungA Alexa Woo, assistant professor of pathology in the School of Medicine. “She was full of energy and fun to work with. It was clear to everyone that she was one of a kind, a rising star, with a bright future ahead.”

In that lab, she made close friends, including Sophia Khan, a PhD student studying neurosciences, who remembers in Zhao the calm confidence she’d displayed in her pole vaulting career. Because of Zhao’s nature, “many people would confide in her and ask for her thoughts,” Khan said. “But Victoria wasn’t just a passive listener; she would provide gentle reality checks to help ground your thoughts.”

Zhao’s boyfriend, rising senior Quaylen Lamarre, called Zhao a “very strong, loving woman” who was quiet and thoughtful. “When she spoke,” he said, “her words were very impactful and insightful; she paid careful attention to detail and how to say exactly what she meant.

Marghi Jani (GRS ’23, bioethics), who worked in a lab near Zhao and developed a close friendship, echoed that sentiment. “She was the person,” Jani said, “that would ground everyone in the room.”

Or the field, Zhao’s coaches said. Zhao joined the women’s track and field team as a first-year undergraduate and excelled, earning All-UAA honors and All-Academic recognition multiple times. She also earned athletics’ Patricia B. Kilpatrick Award, which goes to the four-year varsity participant with the highest grade point average.

Photo of Victoria Zhao competing in a pole vaulting competition

When it came time to start her first year of medical school at Case Western Reserve, she still had eligibility left due to COVID-19. Because of Zhao’s high level of determination, Head Coach Eric Schmuhl actually paused when Zhao asked if she could compete during her rigorous first year of medical school.

“She never quit on anything. She saw everything through to the end. So I told her: ‘You have to be honest with me. When things get difficult, I need you to be honest about what you can handle,’” Schmuhl said. “And she did not miss a beat.”

Navigating Zhao’s academic schedule proved challenging, assistant coach Olivia Cattau said, but Zhao made it to all but one meet and regularly attended practice twice a week. 

Her dedication was a testament to her love for her sport—and her connection with her teammates. Early in her athletics career, Schmuhl said Zhao was a quiet leader. But, over the five years he knew her, she seamlessly stepped into a leadership role when it was needed most.

“It was really impressive to see that growth over the course of her time here,” Schmuhl noted.

Zhao’s parents witnessed such exceptional growth throughout her life—from a young child who was often “hidden away, nose deep in books,” to a talented gymnast, crafter, musician and pole vaulter, and then to a medical student who was interested in emergency medicine to “touch the lives of others, to help relieve suffering,” they said.

In her first year of medical school, she co-led the Emergency Medicine Interest Group and was an active volunteer to help the underserved. “She was always the first person to help someone,” Jani noted.

“Victoria exemplified the qualities that we look for in Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine students,” Lia Logio, vice dean for medical education, said in an email to Zhao’s classmates. “She was intelligent and hard-working, but also empathetic and driven to become a provider of the highest quality patient care.”

Photo of Victoria Zhao in her white coat while with her family
Zhao with her family

Zhao’s parents remember her as “a loving daughter/granddaughter and supportive sister,” noting that “she was unwaveringly kind and would often see the best in others. … She was always there to laugh with on joyous occasions or a shoulder to lean on after a hard day. She always thought of others and made time for those she loved. Our best memories together are of those laughing together at home.”

Details on Zhao’s services will be provided in The Daily as they become available.

Students who would like support during this time are encouraged to contact University Health and Counseling Services at 216.368.5872. This line is staffed by a counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Faculty and staff can access counseling at any time by calling IMPACT Solutions at 1.800.227.6007.