By Joanne C. Gerstner | Jan. 27, 2019, 8:52 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown compete in U.S. figure skating championships on Jan. 27, 2019 in Detroit, Mich.

 

DETROIT -- Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown openly admitted before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that they didn’t know what to expect out of their skating right now. Brown, a 2014 Olympian, is retooling his skating technique and approach with new coaches. Zhou, a 2018 Olympian, is on a different comeback trail, after being hampered last summer and early fall due to a back injury.

Their expectations were modest for the event, which is part of the 2019 Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, but they hoped to see progress at Little Caesars Arena.

Both skaters showed positive signs during the competition, with Zhou finishing second and Brown third, behind reigning world champion Nathan Chen, as the competition wrapped up on Sunday. The trio will be the U.S. team for the 2019 world championships in March in Saitama, Japan.

Brown and Zhou both knew that catching Chen, now three-time U.S. champion — who is skating at another level — was unlikely after Saturday’s short program. Brown was second, but nearly 13 points behind, and Zhou third — only .27 behind Brown.

The margin grew bigger in the end, with Chen’s epic free skate on Sunday pushing his final tally to 342.22. Zhou slid into second with 284.76 points, while Brown was third with 273.08. Tomoki Hiwatashi was a distant fourth, nearly 20 points behind Brown.

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The free skate showed Brown and Zhou that things are getting better, but there is also still a lot to work on.

“I think I look at all the victories I made along the way, I fought through that program,” said Brown, 24, who after failing to make the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team moved to Toronto, where he’s training with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

“Going through all the technical changes — there is a lot of thinking going on in my head. But I am proud of the fight that I had. I am growing each step of the way. And I can’t wait to get back to work.”

Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, has long been known for his artistry, but he’s struggled to keep up with the eye-popping quad jumps that Chen and the world’s other top skaters employ. Brown doubled his lone planned quad. Zhou attempted four quads, but under-rotated two, and fell on another.

Zhou said he was satisfied, and that he too fought through his free skate. Under-rotating jumps is something he is battling this season, and he had hoped to fix the issue.

“My legs were definitely a little shaky before, I was so nervous,” Zhou, 18, said. “But I thought I did a really good job today staying in my own bubble and focusing on what I needed to do. 

“Skating last, especially after the other two men leading me after the short program, was not easy to do. But I am grateful and proud to be here.”

Zhou said he made a deliberate effort to block out Brown and Chen’s scores. He was the last skater to take the ice, and he wanted to maintain absolute focus. Zhou isolated himself in the locker room while Brown skated third-to-last. 

He was closer to the ice when Chen threw down his historic 228.80-point performance, holding his hands over his ears to not to hear the final score. The reaction to Chen’s four-quad free skate was deafening, and Zhou admitted he needed to try to keep his composure.

While Zhou was trying to stay in his “bubble,” Brown watched every second of Chen’s free program skate.

“It was incredible,” he said, with a big smile. “I feel so lucky that Nathan is a teammate. That is how I look at him. Obviously, we compete against each other at nationals. Every time we are out on the international stage, we are teammates and I admire him. And it’s unbelievable. 

“He is pushing the sport in ways that, growing up in the sport, I could have only dreamed (of). And it’s really impressive. He really pushes me to push every other boundary that I can and every other asset that I can bring to the table when I compete. I am so happy he is on Team USA.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.