VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Nathan Chen wasn’t perfect on Thursday night at the Grand Prix Final. But he didn’t need to be.
In a men’s short program that was littered with mistakes, Chen’s miss of a jumping combination may have been the most glaring, but the reigning world champion and defending title-winner at this event has built as strong of a profile as any in figure skating, which helped him to the top of the leaderboard at the final event of the fall season.
Chen’s 92.99 is actually his best of the season, and it edged out rival Shoma Uno of Japan at 91.67. Chen’s training partner, Czech skater Michal Brezina, is in third at 89.21
Chen, 19 and a freshman this semester at Yale, began his “Caravan” short program brilliantly, cleanly landing a triple Axel, a jump that has given him much trouble in the past. But after he nailed a beautiful quadruple flip (another former troubled jump), Chen’s landing on his quad toe was severe, forcing him to put a hand down to save the landing and preventing him from completing the combination he had planned.
Skaters must execute at least one combo in the short program.
“I’m not totally satisfied with my program today,” Chen told reporters. “(Missing the combo is) a big mistake in a short program. I’ve been struggling with my Axel and my flip, so I’m happy I put those out there, but the toe… ”
Chen - like Uno - comes in off of two first-place finishes this season from the Grand Prix Series, winning titles at Skate America and Internationaux de France.
But his greatest challenge has been his new life at Yale and adjusting to a cross-country move to New Haven, Connecticut, from his former training base with coach Rafael Arutunian in Southern California.
Arutunian now does most of his coaching of Chen over FaceTime.
The teen had looked near flawless in practices here leading up to the short program, and he called the missed combination “silly,” adding: “I shouldn’t have made that mistake. It lost me a lot of points.”
The Grand Prix Final is the last stop in the Grand Prix Series, the top tier series in figure skating, and invites only the top six finishers of the season to participate. It marks the halfway point of the season, before national championships take center stage in January and the world championships in March.
The difference between Chen and fourth-place finisher Cha Junhwan of South Korea (89.07) is under four points after the short, practically a nothing margin heading into the free skate, where Chen has excelled this season.
He’s aiming to defend his title here after two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won four consecutive Grand Prix Finals from 2013 to 2016. The Japanese skater, who many regard as the greatest of all time, was forced to miss this Final due to a right ankle injury.
That meant no showdown between Hanyu and Chen, who haven’t met since the Olympics, where Hanyu was the winner and Chen rebounded for a fifth-place finish after a disastrous short.
His performance Thursday night here was nowhere near as bad as PyeongChang in February, and the new college student seems to have a new air of self-assurance about him this season, too.
“What I did in the past stays in the past… I can’t change what I did,” Chen said of the short program. “The free is the most important thing now. Raf (my coach) is not going to be happy I missed a big combo. I’m going to take what I learned from the past into the future.”
Nick McCarvel is a freelance writer and video host based in New York City. He covered the 2016 Olympic Games for TeamUSA.org in Rio, and his work has also appeared in USA TODAY and The New York Times among other publications.