A two-week tune up paid off for Nathan Chen.
The 2018 World champion who trains across the country from coach Rafael Arutunian spent two weeks of the Christmas holidays refining his technique, preparing for this week’s 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.
"[Arutunian] brings a completely new and different atmosphere to the rink," Chen said after the short program. "His presence really forces us to be much more alert, be much more on top of what we’re doing. Having that and a little more guidance from him just in terms of how to structure practice, what my emphasizes should be on the ice was really beneficial.”
Beneficial indeed. That structure resulted in a massive 228.80 score for his free program. He finished with a 342.22 combined score, more than 58 points clear of Vincent Zhou in second place. Zhou totaled 284.01 to hold off Jason Brown, who was second after the short program. Brown earned 273.08.
Better than ever
Chen skated lights out during the free program, executing four clean quadruple jumps along with a triple axel.
"The first jumps it's: check, check, check," he said, capturing how quickly he ticked off the impressive technical difficulty that opens his program.
"Everything came together at the right moment," Chen said.
An understatement to be sure. If he can repeat this performance, he will contend for a second straight World title in the middle of March.
Though scores internationally and domestically cannot be compared, his total at the U.S. championships is more than 40 points better than any total recorded during the 2018-19 Grand Prix and Challenger season.
Finding his way
Zhou, a prodigy who won the 2017 junior World title and went to the Olympics at just 17 years old, is still searching for success at the senior international level.
"This is more than I could have asked for," he said after the short. "Each season it seems that it just gets harder and harder. When it feels like it can't get any harder, then the next season is always there waiting. And this season I can't count the number of times I've gone through a feeling that I don't know if I can continue."
To push through and overcome my biggest obstacle, which is myself, and be able to perform like that today, I'm really grateful for the opportunity to have been able to do that," he added.
He pushed through a free skate in Detroit that lifted him to second, his program included four quadruple jump attempts. Despite falling on one and receiving two underrotations, it was more than enough to pass a quad-less Brown.
A new record
In the short program, Chen posted the highest-ever short program score at the U.S. Championships, a massive 113.42. His scores in the free skate and combined total were also records.
"Overall, I thought the performance has been developing comparatively to the past couple of competitions, so I’m pretty satisfied," he said after the short program.
His program, set to the music of 'Caravan' and choreography by Shae-Lynn Bourne, included a quadruple flip, a quadruple toe in combination and a triple axel.
A work in progress
Brown has had an up-and-down season after leaving longtime coach Kori Ade. He moved to Toronto where he now works with coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser.
At his season-opener at the Autumn Classic, Brown finished in fourth place. He went to Skate Canada about a month later where a disastrous short left him in 11th place. He climbed to sixth overall after the free skate.
But then, a month later at the Internationaux de France, a breakthrough. He was the leader after the short program and finished in second place.
He’s letting Wilson and Orser mold him “the way they want,” a process they expect to take anywhere from 18 to 24 months.
But clearly, Brown has made quick progress. The 100.52 he earned in the short program was a season’s best. His grade of executions scores – all positive and mostly +4 and +5s – lifting him to his dream of breaking 100.
“After I got that 96 in France at the Grand Prix, I was like, ‘Okay - my goal is 100. I know I can reach it. I know it’s attainable,’” he said. “So when that 100 popped up, I was like ‘Oh, my god, it’s real life!’”
During the free program, Brown, who skated to music by Paul Simon, had hoped to open his program with a quadruple Salchow but popped it, only completely two revolutions. It’s a jump that has eluded him in the past.
He skated well the rest of the program – the only other major error was another popped Salchow jump. Clearly a fan favorite inside Little Caesar’s Arena, Brown’s effusive smile and crowd-please split jumps received huge ovations.
He earned 172.56 in the free program, the third best on the night.