KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nathan Chen took all the mystery out of the men’s free skate at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
With a record-setting score of 106.39 in the short program, his lead over second-place Ross Miner was nearly 18 points. It would’ve taken an utter catastrophe for Chen to lose the top spot of the podium.
His free skate was far from a catastrophe. Landing a staggering five quadruple jumps – one in the second half of his program, a last-minute decision that ultimately earned him a scoring bonus – Chen posted an overall score of 318.47 to claim his first national title, at 17 becoming the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.
Chen’s performance was historic, as his free skate earned him 212.08. Not only did it demolish the prior record-high U.S. championships overall score of 274.98 and free skate score of 187.77, he is the first skater ever to land five quads in a single program. Though he trained his program with the additional quad – in competition it normally contains four – it was an all but game-time decision to include it in competition.
“It was amazing,” Chen said of landing five quads. “That’s something I’ve been training for, something that I’ve been working towards. I didn’t want to put it out there just yet ‘cause it’s been not so consistent in practice, but it’s something that I’m really proud about.”
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Sixteen-year-old Vincent Zhou walked away with his first career senior national medal, winning silver with a score of 263.03. 2014 Olympian Jason Brown took bronze, moving up from fourth place with a clean free skate to score 254.23 overall.
Both were in awe of Chen, who believes that the sky is the limit when it comes to adding difficulty to his performances.
“How I progressed as a younger skater is, as soon as I land a new jump, I throw it in the program and work it from there and try to gain consistency in the competitions,” Chen said. “That’s kind of the same mindset I had going into these past few competitions with these big jumps. There really is no end point. You keep on adding new stuff, keep on adding new things and trying to gain confidence with these big jumps.”
Chen skated his program to "The Polovtsian Dances" by Alexander Borodin and was the second to last skater to take the ice. Zhou had the unenviable task of following him in front of a crowd that had just seen history.
Despite the stage, and despite all the factors stacked against him, he was able to exhibit a maturity far beyond his years.
“Honestly the best thing you can do is just block it out and stay in your zone,” Zhou said of the distractions. “Of course I’m still going to hear the scores, and good for him, props to him for breaking the 300 mark and doing all those quads, but in the end it’s still me on the ice at the moment and that’s all I’m focusing on.”
For Zhou, his medal signals his breakout onto the senior stage. Though not his cleanest performance, his free skate earned 175.18, good enough to move up from the third place spot he held after the short program.
Brown’s medal marks his return from a foot injury that left him in a walking boot and unable to train for much of December. Having only began training his jumps again last week, he did not include a quad in either of his programs but looks to be back at full jumping strength for the Four Continents Championships and World Figure Skating Championships.
“I feel like I learn so much more from performances like these, when you have to fight through adversity, you have to push beyond what you think you’re capable of doing and how you’ve been training,” Brown said. “I think I can really take that and move it to the future knowing that I might not feel 100 percent prepared for a competition, but I can pull back on these experiences to know that I’m capable of pushing myself.”
Though Four Continents and the world championships are next on the schedule for these skaters, the crown jewel of figure skating events looms large just over a year away: the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Chen is just 17, and Zhou is 16. But with the performances they threw down in Kansas City, one thing is clear.
“The U.S. is back on the map on the world stage,” Chen said. “We kind of haven’t had the results that we should’ve had over the past few years, and I think that us three want to push the U.S. back to where it should be, and I’m really happy about that.”
And the inevitable question remains: could Chen be the 2018 Olympic champion?
“I believe it’s possible, yeah,” he said. “It’s something that’s still in the distance for me, and there’s so much room I have to improve to make it to that level. But I think it’s definitely possible.”
With five quads in his long program, just about anything is.