Nathan Chen launched himself to the top of the men's podium for the fourth-straight time at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, Sunday afternoon. Skating to 'Rocket Man,' he was in an orbit all by himself, sailing to the win more than 35 points ahead of silver medalist Jason Brown. Tomoki Hiwatashi was third.
He's the first man to claim four consecutive national titles since 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano dominated from 1985 to 1988.
"Needless to say, I'm really thrilled with the results," said Chen.
"Dick [Button], Brian [Boitano], Scott [Hamilton], these guys are all people that I've looked up to for forever since I started skating," he added of the company he joins with four titles.
All of this comes after just a week of solid training leading to the event. The 20-year-old was sidelined with an illness prior to the nationals that kept him away from consistent practice long enough that Chen wasn't planning to decide which elements he would include in his free program until Sunday morning.
"Practices have been going well here," said Chen after earning a massive 114.13 the short program. "But again, you know, not having the same amount of training time as I'd really like could change things for what I decide to do."
Chen earned 216.04 points for his free skate and a total score of 330.17, ahead of Brown's 292.88. Hiwatashi totaled 278.08. 2019 World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou took fourth, earning 275.23.
It might of changed his technical content, but the result was the same. Now, he'll be looking to win his third World title in a row. Canada's Patrick Chan was the last man to capture three global titles back-to-back-to-back from 2011-2013.
A work in progress, still
Brown came to Greensboro unsure of what to except. He had early success in the season, winning the silver medal at Skate America, but also having struggled to put together the programs he wanted.
“This season has been a lot of struggling because we have continued to keep trying different things,” Brown said after the short program.
Changes have been the name of the game for Brown who picked up and moved to Toronto after the 2017-18 season when he missed a return trip to the Olympic Games. He’s worked with new coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson on refining technique, all of it – from stroking technique to his jumps.
“I've had to be very patient because I have always been proud of my consistency and proud of what I bring to the table as far as a reliable competitor,” he said.
If it looked a like the consistent Brown had returned - he ticked off eight clean triple jumps and an attempted quadruple toe loop, which was credited as just a triple - it might have been because of a return to his roots of sorts, prior to Greensboro. Brown spent a fews day in his hometown of Chicago, working with choreographer Rohene Ward.
"I think there was a little bit of a little bit of an old training method [on display]," Brown said of his skate. "It was a little bit of a jump start for me."
Zhou exceeds expectations
Skating first in the final group, Zhou brought the house down, ending with a flourish and the crowd on its feet. Looking at Zhou's resume, the performance was less than a surprise for the man who has taken three consecutive U.S. medals, a World bronze and competed at the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang.
But after beginning classes in the fall at Brown University, Zhou withdrew from his fall competitions including his Grand Prix assignments. Complications with finding consistent ice time meant he was off the ice for two months. He's put his classes on hold to focus on skating and moved to Toronto to work with Lee Barker.
"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 after the short, "instead of having to split my attention and energy and focus between two things that are hugely important to me at the same time."
That focus - and likely his experience - paid off Sunday in Greensboro as he posted a 180.41 score for his free skate, behind an opening quadruple Salchow and eight subsequent triple jumps.
Most surprised by the performance was perhaps Zhou himself, who told NBC Olympic Talk prior to competition that he hoped “to just complete [the competition] and not fall more than six times.”
Sitting in the kiss and cry with a Brown flag, Zhou could be seen to say, "What?" as the scores came up.