GREENSBORO, N.C. — Nathan Chen wasn’t sure a week ago what his short program would look like when he finally stepped on the ice.
Battling the flu, the 2018 Olympian and two-time defending world champion didn’t have as much time to train as he’d like in the days leading up to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
When the Yale sophomore, 20, finally returned to practice, it didn’t go well. As it turns out, not everything comes easily for the American superstar who hasn’t been beaten at a competition since 2018.
Nonetheless, Chen executed his short program brilliantly Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, which he called one of the best of his career, to put himself in position to win his fourth consecutive national championship. He landed the big jumps he has become known for — including two quads — and took a large early lead over the rest of the field after earning a score of 114.13.
“I’m thrilled with today. The short program went really well,” said Chen, whose score upped the nationals short program record he already owned. “I was really happy I was able to get the elements in while still keeping most of the choreography in as well.”
Chen is attempting to become the first American men’s figure skater to win four consecutive national championships since Brian Boitano in 1988. The Salt Lake City native has dominated both domestically and internally, and he arrived in Greensboro this week as the reigning world, Grand Prix Final and U.S. champion.
Chen showed no signs of still being slowed by flu-like symptoms on Saturday afternoon in front of a nationally televised audience. He moved seamlessly across the ice and landed two quadruple jumps during his short program to “La Boheme” by Charles Aznavour.
He made it look easy, and he simply waved to the crowd as he received a standing ovation. He holds a massive 13.14-point lead heading into Sunday’s free skate competition.
Jason Brown, who was a member of the U.S. figure skating team that earned the bronze medal at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, stands far back in second place at 100.99. Andrew Torgashev is in third at 97.87.
“Every competition is a new competition. Successes and failures of past competitions don’t really define what the next competition is going to be like,” Chen said, trying to describe his mindset after having so much recent success.
“Regardless of the fact that I’ve been at worlds, I’ve been at other competitions besides nationals, nationals still holds a lot of weight and is a very, very important competition. You can see the level of talent in this competition.”
Of course, there was a bit of suspense with Chen’s program. While he has been winning long enough to know what tricks he can put into his routine, he didn’t have a firm idea about what his short program would look like because of the time he missed while sick.
Chen still didn’t know the plan for his short program a week ago.
“It was really dependent on how the week of training leading up to this went. I wasn’t really sure exactly where I was going to be,” Chen said. “I couldn’t get to the rink for like a couple of days, and then by the time I could get to the rink, I was just like dragging myself across the ice. I wasn’t really able to get any true training done.”
Brown was the only skater other than Chen to earn a score of at least 100. Brown, a Highland Park, Illinois, native, won his only national title the last time Greensboro hosted the U.S. championships in 2015.
However, like the rest of the field, Brown will have plenty of ground to make up Sunday if he hopes to dethrone Chen.
After the uncertainty with his short program, Chen admitted he still hasn’t finalized his free skate routine for Sunday. It’s also up in the air at the moment.
“It really depends on how I feel (Sunday) morning,” Chen said. “Practices have been going well here, but again not having the same amount of training time I’d really like could change things.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.