KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The energy in the Sprint Center was palpable as soon as Nathan Chen took the ice for his short program. The crowd buzzed, almost as if everyone collectively knew they were about to witness something special.
Two minutes and 50 seconds – and two quadruple jumps – later, the crowd was on its feet before the last refrains of Adolphe Adam’s “Le Corsaire.” Chen had just completed a program that would make history, but was greeted with a more practical message from coach Rafael Arutunian as he skated off the ice.
“He was just saying my [triple] axel was better than two quads,” Chen said with a laugh. “The axel’s always been my struggle jump and to be able to do an axel like that was awesome for me.”
That axel went a long way in contributing to his score of 106.39, which set a new U.S. record.
The prior record was 99.86 earned by Jeremy Abbott in 2014. It wasn’t just broken; it was demolished.
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Chen entered the U.S. championships having landed more quadruple jumps in competition than any other U.S. man, as the youngest U.S. men’s skater ever to medal at a grand prix event, as the reigning U.S. bronze medalist and clear favorite to top the podium this year. The one hole in his resume? A proven ability to live up to the hype. But any doubts have since been wiped away.
With his new record score, Chen now faces a brighter spotlight than the U.S. can provide. The world is officially on notice. But rather than shy away, Chen looks at the pressure as a welcome opportunity.
“Throughout my skating career, nerves have always been there,” Chen said. “It’s something that I’ve just tried to distract myself from and push that aside as much as I can. At the same time, where I am now and where I’m pushing to go is what I’ve strived towards my whole life, and I don’t feel like that’s something I should be afraid of. It’s something that I’m really excited for, actually. It’ll bring more energy and more excitement to my skating versus pulling me down.”
Chen sits ahead of Ross Miner in second place with 88.67, and Vincent Zhou in third with 87.85.
Zhou, just 16 years old, made quite a splash with his program that opened with a clean quad salchow. He was the U.S. intermediate champion in 2011, the novice champion in 2012 and the junior champion in 2013 before sitting out the 2014-15 season with an injury. He hasn’t missed a beat since, returning with a pair of second-place finishes in junior grand prix events and finishing eighth in his senior national championship debut in 2016. This season, he earned a silver and a bronze on the junior grand prix circuit, setting a personal-best short program score of 80.53 that he blew out of the water in Kansas City.
The parallels between Zhou and Chen are uncanny and impossible to miss. Chen, himself still only 17 years old, first made his mark at the senior national level in 2016 as a 16-year-old, winning bronze. But Zhou isn’t rattled by the big boots he’s looking to fill.
“Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me. When he was intermediate, I was just a little preliminary admiring him,” Zhou said. “Now it just feels really amazing to start closing the gap. But I focus a lot on myself, not on my competitors. So like Nathan Chen is amazing. I mean, he’s got all those quads, and he has the potential to score really, really high. But I don’t really let that affect me. I don’t think about my competitors, I focus on my muscle memory and what I know I’m able to do.”
Miner, the grizzled veteran of the bunch at 25 and with three previous U.S. championships medals, was pleased with his performance despite the mistakes. This season he finished ninth at the Cup of China and 12th at Skate Canada, so sitting in second halfway through is welcome progress.
“In the beginning of the season I was definitely doubting myself when I would go out there and skate,” Miner said. “I was skating well in practice at home and I’d get out there and I would kind of hold back. And I kind of told myself today that I want to go have fun out there and just do what I do every day, and really treat it like any other program.”
2014 Olympian Jason Brown, who has been dealing with a stress fracture in his right fibula as of late, is fourth with 79.23. He made the decision to prioritize healing over training, just beginning to train his jumps again two weeks ago and wearing a boot on his injured foot, and suffered a fall in his program.
“I gave it my all. I know I’m not in the strongest shape and I’m not in the best place physically, but every time I step on the ice I’m giving 100 percent,” Brown said. “And I can’t walk away from that performance having regrets. I did the best that I could.”
Despite facing an uphill battle for a spot on the two-man world championship team, Brown remains ever supportive of the evolution of U.S. men’s skating and his competitors’ accomplishments making them an international force.
“I think it’s awesome,” Brown said of Chen and Zhou. “We want a deep field. We want strong men. That is the goal.
“I’m just as big a fan of U.S. skating as I want to be a part of that team and be in that spot. So I’m so thrilled for these men. I’m so proud of Nathan, I’m so excited for Vincent. What they’re doing is awesome.”
Not only is Chen raring to charge ahead amidst the pressure his record score will surely earn him, but he’s ready to bring U.S. men’s skating back to international prominence.
“I definitely feel like we’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said. “We’ve kind of sunk a little bit but I think that me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help put the U.S. back on the map.”