Entering the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Nathan Chen's season had been something of a fairytale. His first year competing on the senior grand prix circuit, he secured silver medals at the NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final, became the first man ever to land five quadruple jumps in a single free skate en route to his first U.S. Figure Skating Championships win, and won his first Four Continents title against the top skaters in the world. He had almost become infallible.
Perhaps his world championships short program was a good reminder for everyone: Nathan Chen is still mortal.
But even a mortal Chen is up there with the world's best. Suffering a fall on his triple axel, Chen earned 97.33, good enough for sixth place heading into the free skate. Reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain sits in first with 109.05, while Shoma Uno of Japan is second with 104.86 and Canada's Patrick Chan is third with 102.13. Jason Brown sits in eighth with 93.10.
"I think the pressure got [to me a little bit]," Chen said. "Before I got on [the ice], this was probably the most nervous I’ve been going into an event all season. It’s a great experience for me and something that I will learn to fix for the long."
Despite the fall on the axel, Chen still completed a clean quad lutz-triple toe combination and a clean quad flip. He has long struggled more with the triple axel than he does with any other jump and his displeasure was evident as soon as the music stopped. His score put him into second place for the time being, but dropped down the leaderboard as the final group took to the ice. Though the mark was well off his personal best score of 103.12 and he now has nearly five points to make up to reach the podium, he has a world-leading five quads in his back pocket for his free skate and has indicated he may add a sixth at worlds.
"I’m happy that I hit the first two jumps. I’m happy that I got through the program pretty well," Chen said. "Obviously, the axel was a pretty big mistake and could have been avoided. I think that it’s something that will prepare me well for the long program and will help me from having things like that happen again.”
Brown was the final skater to take the ice. Without a quad in his program -- his training of the jump was halted due to a foot injury earlier in the season -- he needed to skate clean to stay competitive. He did just that, setting a new personal best score by almost seven points en route to his eighth place.
“I want the quads and I want them in the program but I try [every time I go on the ice] to put myself fully, fully out there in what I’m doing," Brown said. "I’m trying to do everything I can to the best of my ability. I’m trying to polish everything. I’m trying to get every level I can get. It is a point system now and you can get points other places and that’s really what we’ve been working on to strategize. I’m so proud and thrilled that the judges awarded that today.”
The men's competition will conclude with the free skate on Saturday. Chen and Brown's combined final placements will determine the number of men's quota spots the U.S. will receive for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Should they add up to 13 or less, they will earn three quotas; anything above 13 will earn two. Should these placements hold, sixth plus eighth equals 14, earning two quotas.
Rounding out the day's action in Helsinki is the first event final, the pairs' free skate.