Nathan Chen performing in the men's short program at 2019 Skate America on Oct. 18, 2019 in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS – For Nathan Chen, the classes have become harder, but the skating remains the same.
Chen leads after the short program at Skate America, the opening competition of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, for the third year in a row.
From the outside, no one would know Chen is balancing a full course load at an Ivy League college with being the world’s best men’s figure skater.
The Yale sophomore scored 102.71 for his short program, more than six points ahead of Russia’s Dmitri Aliev (96.57) and Canadian Keegan Messing (96.34), who are second and third going into Saturday’s free skate.
2014 Olympian Jason Brown, who eight weeks ago suffered whiplash and a concussion as a result of a car accident, sits in fourth with 83.45. Alexei Krasnozhon is 10th (72.30).
“This is my first time performing this short program in a competitive setting, so I’m not entirely happy with exactly how the program went,” Chen said. “Looking forward to hopefully cleaning up some of the things I did today and keep going forward.”
Chen, 20, has a nearly flawless grand prix record – winning all four assignments he received across the past two season, plus the last two Grand Prix Finals; in his debut senior season (2016-17), he was second and fourth at his assignments and second at the Final – and is on track to continue that this year.
His entire 2018-19 season was flawless, actually. Chen won Skate America, the Internationaux de France and the Grand Prix Final in the first half, before claiming his third consecutive U.S. title, second consecutive world championships title and helping the U.S. win the World Team Trophy.
(L-R) Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc talking in an interview about the crowd at 2019 Skate America on Oct. 10, 2019 in Las Vegas.
Showing he is indeed human, Chen admitted that his college courses, which are now more relevant to his prospective major of statistics and data science, are more challenging than his freshman-year prerequisites were.
“It’s definitely a lot harder, this year relative to last year,” Chen said. “The classes demand a lot more time, a lot more time that I need to spend with [teaching assistants] or other students to figure out how to finish homework. Beyond that, in terms of scheduling it’s the same. Throughout the semester I have gaps, so those are times that I can focus on skating. As far as managing skating and school, it’s the same, but the fact that the courses are more challenging is something that I’m figuring out.”
Something the pairs team of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc is figuring out is that being on the top comes with high expectations – and that ice is slippery.
The reigning U.S. pairs champions are third after their first day at Skate America, scoring 68.20 in their short program, behind China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang (72.73) and Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin (71.25).
Two more American pairs trail Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, with Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier fourth (65.18) and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson fifth (61.27).
Cain-Gribble, who married Dalton Gribble on June 1 of this year, fell on their throw triple Lutz for a one-point deduction in an otherwise stellar program.
“At the end of the day we’re athletes, ice is slippery, we can make mistakes even if we’ve trained incredibly hard, and you have to keep that in mind,” said Cain-Gribble, pointing out that there are no issues with the element and they’ve been doing it for four seasons. “What we’re trying to get away from is trying to be too perfect every single time, and just allow everything to happen because when we do that, we have performances like we did at nationals.”
Last season’s U.S. championships provided a breakthrough moment for Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who beat a talented field that included three past U.S. champion teams to claim gold in their third season together.
Now, they’re not backing down. Their goal is to end this season as one of the top five teams at world championships, something no U.S. pairs team has achieved since 2006 when Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were fourth.
“We understand that this season we’re building for the world championships,” LeDuc said. “We’ve been very outspoken about our goal of being top-five at the world championships. [The U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in] Salt Lake was the first step, this grand prix season is another, then maybe some senior Bs, nationals and worlds. I think we’re really right on track for what we want; to have a big mistake in the program and still score 68 is really awesome."