SAN JOSE, Calif. – The U.S. Olympic men’s figure skating team will be Nathan Chen and….?
Chen solidified his position as an Olympic medal threat and Ross Miner gave U.S. Figure Skating’s selection committee a major conundrum.
Skating to music from “Mao’s Last Dancer” in his free skate at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Chen hit five quadruple jumps, including two in combination.
The 18-year-old’s only mistake was singling a planned triple axel. It didn’t matter. He scored 315.23 points to win by 40.72 points and matched his quad output from 2017, when he became the first man to perform five quads in a program.
“I really think I did my job here,” said Chen. “Everything I wanted to do, I got done. I’ll use this as motivation for next month.”
He is the first male skater to win two national titles in a row since Jeremy Abbott in 2009-2010.
But who will accompany Chen to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018? A selection committee must ponder the results and compare them with results over the past two seasons.
Will it be Miner, who placed a surprising second after taking only sixth in the short program; world junior champ Vincent Zhou, who was third; or 28-year-old Adam Rippon, who had several uncharacteristic mistakes to come in fourth? Only two of the three can go to the Games.
Miner, who will turn 27 later this month, was a blast from the past. The 2009 U.S. junior champion who was third at the 2011 and 2012 national championships and second in 2013, performed a crowd-pleasing routine to a Queen medley to finish with 274.51 points.
“I had one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had on the ice,” said Miner.
He opened his free skate with a quad salchow. “It felt great to go out there and just stomp the landing and show a beautiful quad,” he said.
But Miner’s performance is the type of situation that prompted U.S. Figure Skating to implement a set of criteria for the selection committee to weigh.
He does not have a stellar recent body of work. His best result this season was sixth at Skate America, while he was fifth at a Challenger Series event.
“I know it’s not a fluke,” Miner, who was fifth at the 2016 and 2017 nationals, said of his performance. “That’s what I do at home every day and this was the big moment and I went out there and had no regrets.
“It’s up to them to decide what they decide, but I think I deserve to be there.”
Zhou, the runner-up at the 2017 nationals, also made a strong case for himself.
“I know that I deserve to go to Korea,” he said, “but that’s not up to me.”
The only skater who is a prodigious jumper like Chen, Zhou was just behind Miner in third place with 273.83 points. The 17-year-old, who recently dislocated his shoulder, landed four quads, though three were under-rotated, then fell on his quad toeloop.
Zhou, who is from nearby Palo Alto, California, said hearing the crowd “was causing damage to my eardrums.”
“The energy was flowing through my veins,” he added. “I know I made some mistakes, but overall I’m proud of myself for fighting all the way through tonight.”
Rippon, however, finished his program knowing he’d put his Olympic dream in jeopardy.
In second after the short program, Rippon fell on his quad lutz attempt, then singled both his planned triple salchow and triple lutz. He grimaced as the music ended and scored 268.34 points.
Yet Rippon has crunched the numbers that count – second at Skate America and NHK Trophy and fifth at the Grand Prix Final. A broken foot caused him to miss the 2017 nationals.
“I feel like I have better criteria than second and third place here,” Rippon said, “but with that being said Vincent and Ross skated very well tonight and no matter what the selection is, I will be 100 percent OK and can handle that.”
Jason Brown, the only returning Olympian in the men’s competition, dropped from third to sixth.
Chen gives Team USA hope for its first Olympic medal in men’s or women’s singles since Evan Lysacek won the gold in 2010.
He is the Grand Prix Final champion and also won at Skate America and Rostelecom Cup. But this was the first time Chen accomplished a five-quad program this season.
He swapped out his quad lutz for a quad flip. “I wanted to do more of a clean program,” Chen said, “something I haven’t been able to do all season.”
Last year he set a U.S. record with 318.47 points for a 55.44-point margin of victory.
“I definitely set a big bar for myself last year,” Chen said. “I wouldn’t even say I reached it today. I still have a way to go before I’m able to beat what I did last year.”
He experienced his first major international competition at the world championships, where he was sixth. “I know what it’s like to compete at a pretty big senior event,” he said. “I know I’m capable of doing that. I have to do all the right steps. Today was close to that and gives me a lot of confidence going into February.”
He still remembers watching the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when he wasn’t yet 3 years old.
“It’s been a really fun journey since 2002 where I started,” Chen said. “This is definitely where I wanted to be. This is all I dreamed of, I’m happy I took the right steps. it’s all happening so fast, it seems like just yesterday I first stepped on the ice, I still need time to wrap my head around it, but I’m happy with everything that’s happening."