By Nick McCarvel | March 21, 2019, 10:24 a.m. (ET)

Nathan Chen competes in the men's short program at ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 21, 2019 in Saitama, Japan. 

 

Nathan Chen and Jason Brown each delivered masterful performances at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in the men’s short program, finishing 1-2 for the U.S. in a historic evening in Saitama, Japan.

Teammate Vincent Zhou is in fourth and within striking distance of the podium, with reigning and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan currently in third.

Defending world champion Chen, 19, skated last on Thursday evening and soared through the door left open by Hanyu and Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, also of Japan, who had mistakes in their programs.

Chen’s “Caravan” short program was nearly flawless, the three-time U.S. champ opening with a triple axel, then hitting a quadruple Lutz and a quad toe-triple toe combination. His 107.40 gave him a more-than 10-point cushion, with Brown in second at 96.81.

“I’m very happy with my short program today,” Chen told reporters. “Of course there are always things I can do better. (But) everything I did, I did as best as I could. I hope to continue that into the free program.”

Chen last beat Hanyu, a two-time world champion, head-to-head at the Cup of Russia in 2017. The American was fifth at the Olympics last year following a disastrous short program, when Hanyu won his second gold.

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Brown, 24, is looking for his first world medal in three appearances, having been as high fourth in 2015. He skates the short program without a quad, but earned over 46 points on his component (artistic) marks on Thursday, buoyed as well by positive Grades of Execution on each of his jumping passes.

“I’m working to control my energy and stay calm because this is definitely a dream,” Brown said of skating worlds in Japan. “It’s everything I’ve dreamed for it to be.”

Chen and Brown will be the final two skaters in the men’s free skate, with Chen skating after Hanyu and Brown set to close out the competition. Zhou, 18, will skate first in the final group.

Should two of Chen, Brown and Zhou end up on the podium, it will be the first time two U.S. men have done so since 1996, when Todd Eldredge won gold and Rudy Galindo won bronze at worlds, held then in Edmonton, Alberta.

Zhou, skating in the penultimate group of the short program, hit an opening quad Lutz-triple toe and then a quad Salchow, which was called under-rotated. He finished his short with a triple axel, and after addressed the under-rotation call, which has hampered him throughout the season.

“I thought it was a strong program. I’m happy to have skated my last short program of the season like that,” Zhou said in the mixed zone. “I know I got the under-rotation call on the Salchow. I know what mistake I made and I know what I can do better. To me, it didn’t really take away from the program because the program is more than (one jump).”

Zhou led the men’s event as the final group took to the ice, with Hanyu first to skate. The Japanese star doubled a planned quad Salchow, and then Uno fell on a quad flip. It was Brown who would then take the lead as the next skater, only to be passed on the scoreboard by Chen.

“What?!” Brown exclaimed as his score came through, flanked by coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, whom he started working with at the beginning of the season in Toronto.

“I’m very proud of you,” Orser said when Brown skated off the ice.

In a nod to his artistry, Brown was the only skater among the top nine to go without a quad jump. He does have one (a Salchow) planned for the free. 

The U.S. looks more than assured to maintain its three places among the men’s event for 2020, with the top two Americans needing to combine for 13 or less.

Chen will look to become the first man to win back-to-back titles since Javier Fernandez of Spain did so in 2015-16.

He said his defending champion status has not played on his psyche in Saitama.

“Coming into this worlds was no different than coming into any other worlds, despite the fact that I was able to win there,” he said. “It’s great to be back with everyone in good condition. I’m happy with the way I performed. I’m going to use what I did today to build my confidence for Saturday.”

The Yale freshman is on spring break, and said he’s only grown stronger with adjusting to his new life as a student and skater.

“This has been my favorite season skating… There was a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m happy with the way that things have progressed with skating. I have been able to develop my personality away from skating. Skating isn’t everything. I want to impact the world – not to sound pretentious – in a better way outside of skating.”

For now, however, he’ll aim to impact the world with another gold medal and the accolade as the best male skater in the world.