Feature | Figure Skating

Nathan Chen’s five-peat and other takeaways from U.S. figure skating nationals

The two-time world champ captured the men’s title while Bradie Tennell re-claimed her national title for the first time in three years. Here’s what else we learned.

By Nick McCarvel ·

What happens in Las Vegas... is now in the history books.

While no fans were in attendance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Orleans Arena over the weekend, with a strict bubble for athletes, Nathan Chen, the two-time world champion, still showed up with his top skating, capturing a fifth consecutive men’s singles crown.

He’s the first American man to go five-for-five since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button won seven in a row from 1946 to 1952.

While not all the skaters glided off the ice completely satisfied with their performances, the drama and competition were both fierce, with each of Bradie Tennell as well as Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue re-claiming their national crowns, while Alexa Knierim won her fourth – but first with new partner Brandon Frazier.

Here, five things we learned from... what happened in Vegas.

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Men: Chen completes the drive for five

Chen has now won 12 consecutive gold medals since his fifth-place finish at PyeongChang 2018, and he’ll eye a third straight world title in March should that competition move forward (more on that below).

He wasn’t at his pure best, however, with a hitch in the short program and then needing his hands down on the ice to help save his opening quadruple Lutz in the free skate.

“As for the (long) program, I made some mistakes,” Chen said in press, according to Rocker Skating.

“The first element was not as I planned it to go. I was happy to be able to stay on my feet on the rest of the program, and thrilled with the results.” - Nathan Chen

Chen continues to show his excellence otherwise, however, hitting four quads with positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) in the free skate and growth in his artistry, in particular with a finishing choreography sequence.

The program component (artistry) mark, however, still belongs to Jason Brown, the Sochi 2014 Olympian who is hungry to get back on the U.S. team for Beijing 2022.

His “Sinnerman” short was a hit, though he has yet to master a rotated, consistent quad. The good news? He’ll keep his short for next season, too.

“Having Beijing in mind, being so focused and determined to get back on the (Olympic) team is a huge reason why we’re not shying away from this (short program),” Brown said.

Also eying Beijing? 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou, who won his third national silver medal behind Chen and recently told Olympic Channel he’s after a spot on the Olympic podium, too.

All three men have been named to the U.S. team for worlds.

Bradie Tennell (USA) - 9th Place | Women's Free Skating

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Ladies: Tennell tops a spirited field

There was perhaps no more dramatic discipline over the weekend than the women, as Tennell was able to grab her first national title in three years, with inspired and precise skating. But the top five ladies made headlines for different reasons.

For Amber Glenn, the silver medallist, it was for her attempted triple Axel in the short program (she stood up on it and landed it on two feet, but it was downgraded), as the former junior national champion – way back in 2014 – had her best-ever finish at a U.S. Championships by capturing second.

For 2018 Olympian Karen Chen it was a story of redemption, the 2017 U.S. winner having tried to juggle both school (at Cornell University) and skating last year and this season pivoting to solely focusing on her training, moving to Colorado to do so. It’s paid off: She won the bronze and – along with Tennell – will try to earn the U.S. women three spots for the Olympics at worlds in March.

For two-time defending champion Alysa Liu it was bittersweet: She lost the title she’s held the last two years, but she showed the judges a new maturity in her skating (she’s grown three inches in the last year [7.6cm]) at age 15, while still working through trying to get back her triple Axel and quad jumps. Her performances were each strong and well-executed, with signs of good things to come down the road.

For Mariah Bell it was – as she put it after the competition – a learning experience. Many called her the favourite heading in, but she was tentative in her short program and then fell on a triple flip to open her free.

“It just wasn’t my night,” Bell wrote on Instagram. “Here’s to learning more every day and truly enjoying this process.”

Pairs: Knierim/Frazier up the ante

A year ago Knierim won her third national title alongside husband Chris, a redemption story for a team that had struggled since the 2018 Games.

Frazier, meanwhile, was a disappointing fifth place with partner Haven Denney, themselves former U.S. champs.

Fast forward 12 months and the duo have teamed up, joining forces in March of 2020 and winning Skate America in October, their strengths matching up well and only continuing to grow into U.S. nationals, where they were the runaway champions – with an eye on bigger things.

“I’m proud of what we put out there, we worked very hard, but I’m excited for the future,” Knierim said.

Speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel, Frazier said before the event: “[We] don't try to just hope to have an Olympic appearance, we really want to be competitors at the Olympics, not just another team there. I really would love to go in there and bring a real competitive fire to our discipline.”

Knierim/Frazier will be joined by training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson at worlds, the duo winning their second consecutive silver medal, though they said that their performance was not “exactly what we had been training for... We know what we need to work on when we get back home.”

Ashley Cain Gribble and Timothy LeDuc expressed encouragement with their bronze, having been former champs here in 2019. And Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov are the youngest duo of the bunch, but continue to make their mark, finishing fourth.

Hubbell (R) and Donohue, U.S. Championships 2021

Dance: Hubbell and Donohue re-claim their crown

In the end, the ice dance was decided by a twizzle.

It’s not that simple, of course, but Hubbell/Donohue won their third national title by just 1.63 (224.56 to 222.93) points over Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 and 2020 U.S. champions, Bates losing his balance just a touch at the end of a twizzle sequence in the free dance – just enough of a mistake to cost them the gold.

While there are always small details to nitpick, what was clear was Hubbell and Donohue hunger to re-claim their national title, both of the programs meticulously skated, their “Hallelujah” free dance soft and subtle, yet powerful and moving.

Chock/Bates charmed again with their Egyptian snake dance free, and – with Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker winning bronze – all three U.S. teams (based in Montreal together at a training centre there) aim to be some of the best in the world.

They will each go to the world championships.

What’s next? Skaters aren’t sure, either

But will there be a worlds? That’s the question – and of course the hope – of the skating community, as the International Skating Union (ISU) still has the calendar set for Stockholm to welcome the best skaters in the world, 22-28 March.

Asked about their plans moving forward, most American skaters shrugged and said that they would only stay the course, hoping for the event to go on and doing everything in their power to train and be ready.

The ISU will have particular interest in holding worlds, or making do with a similar event: Each season prior to the Olympics, the world championships are the event that deem how many skaters from each nation will be able to compete at the coming Winter Games, in this case, Beijing 2022.

Should the world championships not be held, a new system will need to be sorted out.

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