Nathan Chen said not to expect fireworks this week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But that’s exactly what he delivered.
He's trying to become the first man since Olympic champion Brian Boitano in 1985-88 to win four-straight U.S. titles this week in Greensboro. But the three-time U.S. champion and double World champ has been dealing with illness for two weeks that hampered his training.
Not that anyone could tell.
“[It was] probably one of the best,” Chen said of his short program. “Everything felt really calm, really paced throughout the program. I feel like I was really in control of everything that I was doing.”
Though scores cannot be compared from one judging panel to another – and certainly not between international and domestic events – Chen’s 114.13 is massive any way you look at it. He leads second place finisher Jason Brown (100.99) by more than 13 points. Andrew Torgashev sits third, earning a short program score of 97.87.
2019 World bronze medallist Vincent Zhou, who is competing for the first time since September, finished fourth.
The balancing act continues
Chen has been undefeated since finishing fifth at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. That streak has included two World titles and two wins at the Grand Prix Final. The 20-year-old American has racked up those victories while famously juggling the demands of being the world's best men's figure skater and a Yale sophomore.
It's a schedule he enjoys.
"I think having the balance definitely forces us to be a little bit more productive," said Chen. "I definitely think that because we have so many extra things to do, extra obligations throughout the day, the times that we have to study are a lot more focused, a lot more intensive."
That focus clearly extends to his training where, because of his illness, he has only been doing full run-throughs the last week ahead of the U.S. championships. But despite that, he executed a silky smooth short program set to the music of La Boheme, firing off a quadruple flip, triple Axel and quad toe, triple toe combination to easily take the lead.
"I was really happy with what the program that I put out," said Chen. "Hopefully I'm able to continue that throughout the rest of the season."
At least year's World Championships, Brown was beaten by only one man - Chen - in the short program. But this season, he's struggled with the program at all three of his events, earning no more than 84 points in any competition.
Today in Greensboro, those programs seemed a distant memory as he nailed all three of his jumping passes and found himself, once again, behind only Chen when the short program concluded.
"We've actually struggled a lot, unfortunately, with this short program this year," said Brown. "I love it so much. I so badly wanted to perform the quality and the way that I know I could, so to able to come here and lay that out, that in itself was such a victory for me."
Despite those struggles, Brown earned a silver medal early in the season at Skate America, which is part of the International Skating Union's Grand Prix, but hadn't quite found his groove, until recently.
"I think just like two weeks ago, I looked to Tracy [Wilson], and it's like I finally feel the program," he said.
He hopes to have that feeling again Sunday when the men's title is decided.
"I'm really, really looking forward to tomorrow," Brown said.
Solid return for Zhou
Coming into the U.S. championships, Zhou, a 2018 Olympian, wasn't sure to expect. He hasn't competed since September, choosing to sit out of competition while he started classes at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Those plans quickly got complicated, as the demands of classwork and difficulty finding consistent ice time gave way. Zhou had inconsistent - and a times non-existent - practices over four months. That caused the 2019 U.S. silver medallist to put his schooling on hold and move to Toronto to work with coach Lee Barkell in December.
"For me personally, I just think that it's best for me if I can fully dedicate myself to one at a time so that I can produce the best result possible in whatever it is I choose to do," said Zhou, "instead of having to split my attention and energy and focus between two things that are hugely important to me at the same time."
He executed a quadruple Salchow, a triple Axel and a triple Lutz, triple toe combination en route to his 94.82 total.