SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nathan Chen could feel the atmosphere had changed from one year prior when he stepped out on the ice Thursday night for his short program at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Chen knew that there was more than just the defense of his national title on the line: He was also skating to officially secure his Olympic debut.
“I definitely feel the energy is different from last year, but ultimately I have to do what I set out to do and focus on my own goals,” Chen said, admitting he was nervous before he skated.
Chen’s goal for his first of two programs at the SAP Center was simple: “skate relatively clean.”
Chen scored 104.45, putting him in first after the short program and nearing the 106.39 he earned last year to obliterate the previous U.S. championships record by 6.53 points.
Sitting behind Chen heading into Saturday night’s free skate is Adam Rippon, who earned a personal best 96.52. Jason Brown is within striking distance after scoring 93.23. All eyes were on those three men entering the U.S. championships this week, as they are among the favorites to make the three-man 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
Rippon is aiming for his first Olympic team in his third Olympic quadrennial. His hopes unraveled at both of the past two pre-Olympic nationals; he was fifth in 2010 and eighth in 2014. But not this time as the 28-year-old is skating better than ever and determined to change his fate.
“This was the first step that I needed to take to having that amazing comeback that I felt like I was going to have,” Rippon said, referring to the foot injury he suffered almost one year ago to the day, sidelining him from the 2017 U.S. championships. “I was really proud of what I was able to do today.”
Brown, meanwhile, placed ninth at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, where he also helped the U.S. earn bronze in the team event, and is looking to make his second Olympic team.
“I had a blast out there tonight; definitely disappointed with the opening part of the program,” Brown said about his under rotated triple axel. “But what I’m proud of is the recovery and making sure that I didn’t leave a single point on the table after that moment, so super proud of that and I had the best time performing.”
Among the other Olympic contenders, two-time defending pewter medalist Grant Hochstein skated what was perhaps the short program of his career, scoring 92.18 to beat his previous best U.S. score by 12.92 points and put him in fourth, while reigning silver medalist Vincent Zhou is in fifth after earning 89.02 points. Meanwhile, four-time U.S. medalist Max Aaron made multiple mistakes and did not perform a crucial combination jump, leaving him in 12th place with a score of 74.95.
While some of the American men surprised – whether for better, like Hochstein, or worse, like Aaron – it was Chen who again proved he is the most consistent – even with what he called a “watered down program.”
Chen made the decision day-of to change his quadruple lutz to a quad toeloop instead.
“Mostly it was just a percentage thing,” Chen explained of the last-minute decision. “Toe has a high percentage for me, (quad) flip also is relatively high out there. Lutz this whole week has not been my forte, so I figured those would be the two safest jumps to put out today.”
The 18-year-old gave up valuable points by changing the jump, but with enough different quads in his repertoire – five, to be exact – knew he could make a replacement and still score high enough to put himself in first and maintain his status as the top contender for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, as well as the Olympic podium – even with the nerves that came along with his first Olympic season.
But nerves weren’t the only thing new to the “quad king” in San Jose: He debuted a new short program costume on Thursday, one that was designed by Vera Wang.
“We took quite a long time designing the costume, making sure it matched the program,” Chen said. “And it was a really fun process getting to work with Vera and her whole team; I didn’t realize there were so many people behind her designs, so it was really cool to be able to have that experience. The costume felt great on the ice.”
Also new was his haircut. Chen sported a shorter ‘do after chopping his curly locks.
“The curl is gone but I guess that makes me more aerodynamic, so that’s alright.”
“You should grow it back if it’s making you more aerodynamic,” quipped competitor Rippon.