Las Vegas is the setting for the opening ISU figure skating Grand Prix of the season and one skater who should be a safe bet for the podium is double world champion Nathan Chen.
On the hunt for his third straight Skate America title, Chen will be hoping to continue his momentum from last season, which ended with the Team USA skater claiming his second consecutive World Championship title in Saitama, Japan.
Chen is back with new programs, one of which fans saw in action earlier this month at the Japan Open. The 20-year-old Yale student took a comfortable victory on the men’s side with his new free skate to a medley of songs from the Elton John biopic, ‘Rocket Man’.
An apt choice for notorious ‘Quad King’ Chen, whose skating has reached new heights over the last couple of seasons, and who is expected to include an array of quadruple jumps on home ice this weekend.
A run through of his free program during a solid practice on Thursday saw the American hit three quads, only popping his fourth attempt, the quad salchow, to a double.
So how many quad jumps can we expect to see from him during competition in Las Vegas? “Honestly, I don’t really know exactly,” Chen told reporters, admitting he gives "vague" answers as he gets asked the question a lot.
“I have ideas. I want to push three. I want to push four. As of now, I think three is a given. But beyond that, we’ll see.”
Three quads may be a "given" for Chen, but he is still thriving from the competition around him and remains determined to improve.
“The sport continues to evolve,” Chen added. "These guys that I’m competing against are continuing to get better and are continuing to try to do new things.
“The personalities out there are really competitive… that helps me with my drive. I don’t want to fall behind. (For that) I have great people around me.”
The Orleans Arena crowd gave a warm reception to the home favourite, particularly for the final segment of the program, where Chen skates to a re-versioned 'Bennie and the Jets'.
Speaking after practice, Chen told the media he was enjoying incorporating hip-hop moves into his choreography.
"I haven’t really seen much of this," said Chen. "It wasn’t something that no one has ever done but rarely do you see it within… I guess within the top six guys you probably won’t see that very often. I figured it would be kind of interesting to breach into it.
"When Marie (France Dubreuil, choreographer) kind of pitched it to me I thought it was a little risky, I just didn’t know how people would respond to it but even in Japan, I got a pretty good response, so hopefully it will continue growing as the season goes on.
"We don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fanbase and the audience. It would be nice to incorporate everything. So it’s cool to be able to see…all the guys competing at different competitions have completely different styles so every program is new, every program is unique, fresh."
One skater out to challenge the dominant youngster is compatriot Jason Brown. He will be hoping to continue his resurgence under coach Brian Orser, having made the move to the Toronto Cricket Club to train in summer 2018.
Brown’s start to the season was waylaid after the 24-year-old was involved in a car accident, forcing him to withdraw from Nebelhorn Trophy as he recovered from concussion, but he will be ready to unveil his new programs in Vegas.
Other contenders for the men’s podium include Junhwan Cha of South Korea, who won bronze in the Grand Prix Final last season and has added the difficult quadruple flip jump to his repertoire, Russia’s Dmitri Aliev, an early-season victor at the Ondrej Nepela competition and Jin Boyang of China, who has struggled for consistency over the last couple of seasons but enjoyed success at Lombardia Trophy last month, where Aliev took silver.
Keegan Messing has chosen to compete despite suffering recent personal tragedy after his younger brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, just days after Canadian Messing won bronze at the Autumn Classic International last month.
Last season’s World Championship silver medallist, Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan, made history as the first woman to land a quadruple jump in senior competition in Saitama back in March but the 19-year-old won’t be in Vegas after a back injury forced her to withdraw.
Her rink-mate, 15-year-old Anna Shcherbakova, another pupil of renowned Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze, makes her senior Grand Prix debut, bringing with her two planned quadruple lutz jumps in the free skate. The difficult jump, only being done by a handful of female skaters, helped her to victory at the Lombardia Trophy last month.
Shcherbakova landed the opening quad lutz in her free skate run through in practice on Thursday, in combination with a triple toeloop, but fell on the second.
The more experienced Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, also of Russia, boasts two triple axels in her free skate and could pose a threat, having finished runner-up to Shcherbakova at Lombardia.
Kaori Sakamoto, silver medalist at Skate America for the last two seasons, is another podium prospect, along with South Korea's Eunsoo Lim, while the strongest home hope is expected to be Bradie Tennell.
Reigning Japanese national champion Sakamoto had ice on her ankle after practice, having suffered an injury last month while attempting a triple axel, a jump she is yet to conquer.
But the 19-year-old says she is on the mend, telling the media: "I’m not taking any painkillers and just using tape. At the beginning, it was too painful to move my foot. So I had to wrap it with bandages well so that I couldn’t move my foot – even at practice. But I’m using less tape now.
"From time to time, it hurts. But not like before. I’d better not talk about it more."
She added: "It’s getting better, so I’m not that worried."
Sakamoto admits her injury has hindered her plans to start jumping the triple axel.
"...I injured myself while practicing (triple) axel, so I’m a little scared now," she said. "Since then, I haven’t practiced the axel at all. But right now, I should just focus on what I can and should do."
Following the withdrawal of World Championships bronze medallists Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert of Russia, China’s Cheng Peng and Yang Jin, Grand Prix Final runners-up last year, lead the way in the pairs competition, with last year’s Skate America bronze medallists Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc flying the home flag.
In the ice dance, last year’s Grand Prix Final champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will also be hoping for success on home soil, facing Russian competition from Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin.
Skate America Event Schedule
(Times are local)
Friday, Oct. 18
1:00 p.m. | Pairs Short Program & Men’s Short Program
7:00 p.m. | Rhythm Dance & Ladies Short Program
Saturday. Oct. 19
1:00 p.m. Pairs Free Skate & Men’s Free Skate
6:45 p.m. | Free Dance and Ladies Free Skate
Sunday, Oct. 20
2:00 p.m. | Skating Spectacular
The 2019/20 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating season calendar
October 18-20 - Skate America, Las Vegas
October 25-27 - Skate Canada, Kelowna
November 1-3 - Internationaux de France, Grenoble
November 8-10 - Cup of China, Chongqing
November 15-17 - Rostelecom Cup, Moscow
November 22-24 - NHK Trophy, Sapporo
December 5-8 - Grand Prix Final, Turin
Olympic Channel will be on the ground in Las Vegas bringing you news, reaction and behind the scenes. Follow @OlympicChannel across social media.