After an uncharacteristic fall on a triple axel in Thursday’s short program, sitting in sixth and suffering boot problems, the deck was stacked against Nathan Chen in his quest to become the youngest men’s figure skating world champion.
Those issues proved too much for 17-year-old “quad king,” who continued to falter in Saturday’s free skate at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, succumbing to the nerves and boot problems.
Chen ended his streak of 20 straight quads landed in competition that stemmed back to December when he fell on his opening quadruple lutz and minutes later on his quad salchow, the fifth quad of his program.
At his senior world championships debut, the American gave it everything he got – attempting a record six quads in his program and landing four of them, still more than the majority of the field.
“I planned this program because I’m a strong technical skater and that’s something that has been working for me this season," Chen said. "I threw in that extra quad but it didn’t really play out how I wanted it to. It’s a good step for me. This is the longest season that I’ve ever had and we’re here at worlds so it’s a good experience for me. I’ve learned a lot this week.”
He was unable to outperform the stacked list of Olympic and world medalists who joined him in the free skate and finished in sixth with a free skate score of 193.39 and a total of 290.72.
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Still, Chen’s season is nothing to frown at. In the past five months, Chen became the youngest U.S. man to medal at a grand prix (NHK Trophy silver) and second-youngest man to medal at the Grand Prix Final (silver), won his first senior national title, and defeated Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and became the first to land five quads in a single program at Four Continents Championships.
Hanyu turned the tables on Saturday, winning his second-career world title with a world-record free skate score of 223.20 for a 321.59 total. Teammate Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin of China joined Hanyu on the podium with total scores of 319.31 and 303.58, respectively.
Jason Brown, the only other American in the men’s competition, finished just behind Chen in seventh with a free skate score of 176.47 and total of 269.57.
Brown struggled with his lone quad, falling on his opening quad toe, but attempting the jump was a victory in itself for the skater who missed the second half of last season due to back injury and was again hampered by injury earlier this season, this time a stress fracture in his right fibula.
While the Americans went their eighth straight world championships without a world medal, Chen and Brown did pull off perhaps their biggest goal entering worlds: securing three Olympic quota spots for Team USA.
After only qualifying two skaters for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and again losing the third spot at the 2016 world championships on home ice in Boston, Chen and Brown were determined to earn that spot back.
Their sixth- and seventh-place finishes did exactly what was needed, totaling 13, the number a country’s top-two finishers must equal to earn that nation three spots at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“There was a lot on my plate this week. I really wanted to do the best that I could for the U.S. team," Brown said. "I’m glad that Nathan and I were able to get three spots for the U.S. men heading into the Olympics. That was really, really a goal of mine. I wanted to do everything I could so that when I left the ice, I felt like I gave it my all to reach that goal.”
The athletes who fill those spots will be determined after the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.