Nathan Chen is one step closer to a five-peat at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The four-time and reigning U.S. champion was in prime form on Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, skating to a 113.92 in the short program, six points ahead of 2019 world bronze medallist and fellow Olympian Vincent Zhou, who registered a 107.79.
The competition is being held at Orleans Arena in a protected bubble, with no fans in attendance. Chen won in the same scenario at Skate America in October, which was also held in Las Vegas. Since his fifth-place finish at the PyeongChang Winter Games, the 21 year old has won 11 consecutive gold medals.
"I'm happy with the way that it went," Chen told reporters. "It's a strange season... I'm glad (about) Skate America and I'm happy with the short here so far."
Chen chasing more history
In 2020, Chen joined a bevy of American men to go four in a row at nationals, but only two-time Olympic champion Dick Button has done five straight (in fact, he won seven from 1946-52) since World War II.
Chen's technical content continues to be superior against that of his peers, his layout of an opening quadruple Lutz, then a triple Axel and - in the latter half of the program - a quad flip and triple toeloop in combination earned him positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) across the board in his program, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne.
"Some of the jumps were a little shakier than I was practicing, so I was shaking my head (at the end) because those mistakes are jumps I could have made cleaner," Chen told NBC Sports TV.
Chen has re-joined coach Rafael Arutunian in southern California since leaving school at Yale in March, and is on a leave of absence from his studies through Beijing 2022.
"It’s been awesome to be back (in California)," Chen said. "I have training mates who prioritize their health, which I am fortunate for."
Chen told Olympic Channel in October that the Winter Olympic Games next year continue to be the "driving force" behind his training, though he said Saturday that they are only taking up "a little" head space day in and day out.
"Where I am, I'm happy with," Chen said. "But I always want to be better."
Standout performances for Zhou, Brown
Zhou, only six points back from Chen, remains in striking distance for the free skate, while Brown - always a crowd favourite - wowed with a new short program, set to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman", which he says he'll keep into the coming Olympic season.
"I'm planning to keep this program for two years," Brown said. "It's a taxing program. ... I'm excited to take feedback from this event and how it felt (on the ice) and working on the program to make it stronger and better in the future."
"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 (program)," he said.
"I'm planning on keeping this program for two years. ... I want to continue to up the ante." -- Jason Brown
Brown, without a quad jump in his repertoire, outscored both Chen and Zhou in terms of program components - the artistry marks - with a 48.80, compared to Chen's 47.70 and Zhou's 46.30.
Zhou, having nearly stepped away from the sport in the fall of 2019, looks poised to capture a third silver medal at the national championships. He hit a quad Lutz-triple toe combination, quad Salchow and triple Axel in his short, having had both back and ankle injuries after Skate America impact his training.
"Getting to this point has been quite a journey," Zhou said. "(Quarantine) has given me the chance to evaluate my goals. I’ve had a solid block of uninterrupted training.”
Could he try and beat Chen for the very first time? The mountain is steep.
"Anything can happen," he said about the potential. “I want to be the best that I can. If that means I can win, then great."
Tennell, K. Chen added to worlds team
Earlier in the day, U.S. Figure Skating announced it would send Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen to the world championships, which are still scheduled to go on in March in Stockholm. On Friday, Tennell won her second national title while Chen finished third behind Amber Glenn.
USFS reasoned that Chen helped the U.S. earn a third Olympic spot at worlds in 2017 by finishing fourth there (countries have to have two finishers that add up to 13 points or less at the previous year's worlds for three Olympic berths), while Glenn isn't as experienced on the international stage.
Glenn will serve as the alternate for the team. Before the announcement was made, she told Olympic Channel her feelings about potentially being left off the team: "(They) should definitely go with a team that they know will go and get those three spots back. If that includes me or not, I'm all for either way. I'll be happy with whatever decision they make because I know they will make the right one. Whoever goes, I'll be cheering for to get those spots."