The two-time and reigning world champion opened the season strongly as Vincent Zhou skated to second. Hubbell and Donohue lead the ice dance.
Nathan Chen is in late-season form in the opening Grand Prix of the year.
The two-time and reigning world champion showed no signs of rust in the first major international figure skating event of the season, skating to a 111.17 short program score to claim a 12-point lead over compatriot Vincent Zhou at Skate America in Las Vegas.
Canada’s Keegan Messing, one of just eight international athletes at the mostly-American event, is in third place.
In ice dance, defending champs Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also skated into first with a 85.30 in the rhythm dance, ahead of their U.S. teammates and Montreal training mates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, at 81.15. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko are in third.
Skaters are limited to just one Grand Prix this season, with a handful of events already being cancelled, including Skate Canada next week.
COVID protocols are in place at the Orleans Arena, where Chen and his competitors skated in front of cardboard cutouts of fans in an otherwise empty arena.
That didn’t bother the three-time and reigning Skate America champ, who donned a bolero jacket for his Latin-themed mariachi short program. Chen executed a quad toe-triple toe in combination, then a triple Axel and quad flip. His program included a series of intricate footwork, choreographed by former ice dancer Shae-Lynn Bourne.
“I felt great out there. I’m happy with where I am right now,” said Chen, 21. “The Olympics is a large motivator for me. That said, I think since I was a kid, the way I was raised, it’s about always being better, even if that’s just a millimeter.”
“The Olympics is a large motivator for me. That said, I think since I was a kid, the way I was raised, it’s about always being better, even if that’s just a millimeter.” - Nathan Chen on what drives him to be better
Zhou scored a 99.36 and Messing a 92.40. American Tomoki Hiwatashi is within striking distance of the podium at 87.17.
Chen looked in imperious form from his opening stance, executing his quad-triple combo with a positive 3.61 grade of execution (GOE). He received +3 or more on each of his three jumping requirements, while also scoring nine and above across his program components.
Chen has returned to training full time in California with coach Rafael Arutunian, and said the positive atmosphere there among his training mates has helped motivate him during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The amount of positivity and strength from the community at large has really been inspiring," Chen told reporters. "People are still fighting, doing everything they can to have some sense of reality. That encompasses a lot of different things. There is a lot strength and power that is coming from other people. I feel that at the rink I’m at, too. We’re finding things that make us happy, fulfilled, and I think that can carry over into skating."
Zhou was only a point off of his best (a 100.51 at World Team Trophy in 2019), but was particularly satisfied with his performance, having had a tough few days of practice, including a bad fall on Friday morning.
"That can shake up your confidence a little. I had a lot of doubts racing through my head. I took a nap and slept it off. Tonight, I told myself, 'I have one job to do.’" - Vincent Zhou on his fall at practice on Friday
"I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs in the last week," said the 19-year-old. "I put in a solid block of training the last week, and I’ve been trying to find my groove. It has felt a little off sometimes."
About the fall in practice he said: "That can shake up your confidence a little. I had a lot of doubts racing through my head. I took a nap and slept it off. Tonight I told myself, 'I have one job to do.’"
Zhou switched back to Colorado Springs, Colo., during the pandemic, his former training base, having spent part of last season at school at Brown University, then in Toronto with a new coaching situation. He has lofty goals for Beijing 2022: The medal stand.
Messing, the lone Canadian competing at Skate America, was happy with his performance, too: He hit a quad toe-triple toe combination, triple Axel and triple Lutz while earning component scores in the eight-point range.
There were few surprises in the final discipline of the day, with the two-time world medallists Hubbell/Donohue debuting a new rhythm dance to music from the film Burlesque.
"Tonight was a nice way to get back into the swing of things... we felt that rush of adrenaline even though there is no crowd here," said Hubbell in the post-skate press conference. Added Donohue: "We're just really happy. This is an amazing opportunity."
Hawayek/Baker maintained their popular Saturday Night Fever program from last season. "It felt like a no brainer (to keep it)," explained Hawayek. "It's an excitement to let it flourish."
Duos were not made to change their programs from last season if they didn't want to, due to lack of training time because of COVID.
While Hubbell/Donohue and Hawayek/Baker made the trip from their training hub in Montreal, former U.S. champs Madison Chock and Evan Bates did not, citing a lack of training time and preparedness for the first Grand Prix of the year.