DETROIT – The 20-person field for the men’s competition at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships included three Olympians. Those three Olympians are also the only three of 20 to have landed on a past U.S. championships podium.
And it is those three who again landed in the top three following Saturday’s short program of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Nathan Chen, a 2018 Olympian and the two-time defending national champion, Jason Brown, a 2014 Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion, and Vincent Zhou, 2018 Olympian and two-time U.S. medalist, are first through third – and they set themselves apart from the rest of the field.
Chen scored 113.42 in the short, which marks the highest U.S. championships score in history and Chen’s personal best. Brown scored a 100.52 for his first mark over 100 in the new scoring system, and Zhou is close behind with a 100.25, more than 22 points higher than his international best under the scoring system.
The fourth-place finisher is more than 16 points behind Zhou.
They showed why they have earned the title of Olympian with one of the cleanest group of skates seen at nationals. The three skaters remained upright through all 12 of their combined jumps, and only one (Zhou’s quadruple lutz) was under-rotated.
The “big three,” as they were called by fifth-place finisher Alex Krasnozhon, have all been overcoming obstacles and becoming accustomed to new situations this season, and were more than pleased with their performances and placement in the short.
Prior to starting this season, Chen moved from his training base in California, where he focused solely on skating, to Connecticut, where he balances training to be the world’s best skater with college studies as he began his freshman year at Yale.
The move has brought new challenges, such as juggling his studies with training and international travel for competition, as well as training on his own while his coach Rafael Arutunian is still on the West Coast.
But there are also benefits.
“I’m really loving being in the college atmosphere, being able to have something to do outside of the rink, being able to focus on things that are – in my opinion – equally as important as the time that I spend on the ice,” Chen, 19, said. “In California, everything is structured around skating. If you have a bad day, that carries on throughout the rest of the day, but if you have an opportunity to potentially have a bad day on the ice you can still have a good day outside of the rink. I think that mood change carries on for the next day.
“I feel like I’m learning quite a lot outside of skating and within skating in terms of how to train by myself, how to deal with unknown circumstances that I’m definitely not used to. Overall everything’s paying off exactly how I hoped it would.”
Brown moved in the offseason from Colorado to Toronto, and switched coaches. He and his coaching team of Olympic medalists Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson have a long-term plan to help him achieve his goals, which has started with a retooling of Brown’s jumps and technique.
He’s learning in Detroit that he’s already ahead of schedule.
“What’s cool is that Tracy and Brian, along the way, are telling me I’m picking things up a lot quicker than someone who’s done something for so long,” Brown said. “But I think it comes from that I’m so willing to change and so open for it, so I’m allowing for me to be malleable and for them to mold me the way that they want. … As a whole with this journey, it gives me the patience to know this will take 18 months.”
Brown also came into this week hoping to erase the demons from last year’s nationals, where mistakes led to a sixth-place finish and missing a spot on the Olympic team.
“I had those memories and those flashbacks this week,” he said. “Unfortunately, last year’s nationals is still super vivid in my head. It doesn’t keep me up at night and doesn’t bother me, but my thoughts and feelings during those skates are still so clear. I wish I forgot about them, but they’re also helping push me forward.”
For Zhou, who did make last year’s Olympic team, he has been coming back from a back injury suffered last March as he was leaving for world championships.
His performance Saturday was the best he’s performed the program in competition and on par with how he practices.
“This is more than I could’ve asked for,” Zhou reflected. “Each season it seems that it just gets harder and harder, and when it feels like it can’t possibly get any harder then the next season is always there. This season I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gone through a feeling that I don’t know how I can continue.
“To push through and overcome my biggest obstacle, which is myself, and be able to perform like that today, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be able to do that.”