VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Semester exams at Yale start next Thursday, but Friday night some 3,000 miles away from New Haven, Connecticut, American teen Nathan Chen nailed his first major test of the figure skating season with a repeat winning performance at the Grand Prix Final.
Chen had mistakes in both the short and long programs, but won with a seven-point edge over Japan's Shoma Uno, totaling 282.42 points to 275.10. Seventeen-year-old Junhwan Cha of South Korea won the bronze.
"I'm glad I was able to pull it together in the second half of the program," Chen, 19, said in reference to a fall on an attempted quadruple Lutz. "I'm not quite where I want to be. (But) this was the first free skate I did this season with more than three quads. I wanted to improve off of what I did last competition... and I did that."
Chen is now a perfect three-for-three this season, having won at Skate America and Internationaux de France earlier in the fall.
In fact, Chen has won nine of the last 10 competitions he’s skated in, dating back to September of last year. His lone loss? A fifth-place finish at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
He will now set his sights on a third straight national title, the U.S. championships set for late January in Detroit.
"I just want to keep improving," Chen told reporters. "I missed that Lutz (in the free skate), so that's what I'm thinking about right now. I like to focus on the present and try not to dwell on the past. It's on to the next."
The reigning world champion led the field at the Grand Prix Final after two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan withdrew due to a right ankle injury. Though it was not the Chen-Hanyu showdown that many had hoped for, Uno, the Olympic silver medalist, provided some pressure on Chen in a field that featured the best six men of the Grand Prix Series this fall.
Chen opened his “Land of All” free skate with an effortless quad flip, a jump that has been trustworthy in the past but that he’s taken to a monster level both in height and execution, while making it look next to effortless.
But next came that troubled Lutz, which Chen fell on, meaning he had to rearrange his opening combination. He did, landing a quad toe-triple toe and then a triple Lutz-triple toe.
He shrugged after hitting his final pose, knowing he had left the door open for Uno, though the Japanese skater could not capitalize.
Chen said he will have only a day to relax before he begins finals at school. First up: A Spanish spoken exam.
But Chen said he’s most looking forward to getting back home once tests are over and checking in on his old stomping grounds, including with coach Rafael Arutunian and training mates, one of them being the Czech veteran Michal Brezina, who was fourth in Vancouver after what has been a resurgent season.
It was also Brezina who was backstage with Chen when Uno’s scores came through, confirming the American as the winner. “Congrats man,” Brezina told Chen of the win. The two embraced with a hug.
“I’m really excited to go back to California and train with a lot of my teammates, that’s been an aspect of my skating that’s lacking,” Chen said later. “In New Haven, I’m either practicing by myself or with skaters who are not at the level as my training mates in California. I think (being at home a little) will help me prepare for nationals and potentially worlds. That’s something nice to look forward to. But, right now, I need to focus on one thing at a time.”
Chen wants to also spend more time working on the artistic side of his skating, having had his short program choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne and his free skate by Marie-France Dubreuil, both of whom are former competitors and world medalists.
“The team that they have in Montreal is pretty incredible,” Chen said of Dubreuil’s camp, which features some of the best ice dance duos in the world. “It’s been a great experience for me (working there). I want to go back to Montreal soon. I have a lot of work to be done on the free skate and there are a lot of things that can just be better in general.”
It’s the marked signals of a champion – even a champion in his first year of college: Chen is fully making plans for what comes next in his training, and how he can get better in the second half of the season in this post-Olympic year.
He becomes the fourth man to repeat victory at the Grand Prix Final since the event’s debut in 1995. Hanyu won four straight from 2013-16. The next time the two great skaters could meet is the Four Continents Championships in early February in Anaheim, California.
Chen becomes the first U.S. man to win two Grand Prix Final titles, with Jeremy Abbott (2008) and Evan Lysacek (2009) being the only other American winners.
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.