Nathan Chen competes in the mens short program during the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
There was never much of a question whether Nathan Chen would win 2020 Skate America, held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this weekend. But in a season shortened by COVID-19, and in a competition held within a bubble environment and with mostly U.S. skaters, would we see the two-time world champion at, or near, the top of his game? Would he hit his quadruple jumps? How would his programs look?
After Saturday’s free skate, the answers are yes, mostly yes and just fine, thank you.
The 21-year-old Chen, undefeated since the PyeongChang Games in 2018, had a masterful if imperfect performance to selections from Philip Glass, including music from “The Truman Show.”
In a program that emphasized simple but powerful movements and clean lines, he opened with a superb quad flip, triple toe loop combination before uncharacteristically popping an intended quadruple salchow into a double. Although he also popped his triple axel into a single, he landed two quad toe loops, both in combination, and excelled in his steps and spins.
“I made quite a few big mistakes in that program, things I shouldn’t have made mistakes on, but it is what it is and I will move on from that,” he said, later adding, “It gives be a base I can keep improving on.”
Chen earned 187.98 points, ending the competition with 299.15 points to easily win his fourth consecutive Skate America, besting silver medalist Vincent Zhou by some 24 points.
The free skate stood in stark contrast to Friday’s short program, when Chen interpreted Spanish and Latin American music in a flamboyant portrayal of the “El Mariachi” character from the Antonio Banderas’ 1995 movie, “Desperado.”
Both programs were created by the skater’s longtime choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne, the 2003 world ice dance champion, but the spare, simple approach of Glass is far more in Chen’s wheelhouse.
“It’s more classical, a little more lyrical,” said Chen, who studied Glass in a music appreciation class at Yale University. “It’s very minimal, and we tried to use that as some of the inspiration of the program. I really enjoy that style, I find I can interpret that better and put myself into that kind of program better than the style of music in the short.”
“Of course, because of no direct lyrics, no direct character, it’s a little bit more subjective on how you interpret the program,” he added.
Chen partly attributed his fine form to few, if any, offseason obligations. The COVID-19 pandemic prohibited skating shows and tours, and the skater has taken a leave of absence from his studies at Yale, where he is a rising junior. Not even several months off of the ice this spring, due to his Irvine, California, rink’s closing, seemed to impact his preparation.
“I’ve had experience with taking months off the ice and then coming back and still being able to do what I need to do,” he said. “I kind of modeled my return to the ice similar to what I did in 2016, when I was off the ice for (hip) surgery, although this time I didn’t have to go through the whole rehab process. I could go straight back to regular training.”
The four-time U.S. champion credits United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee strength and conditioning coach Brandon Siakel with keeping him fit.
“He put a lot of time and effort into me to make sure I was physically able to get back to the ice,” Chen said. “There was some lag time, it took some time to get back to basics — being able to do triples and to touch quads, and to get back to where I am capable of putting programs together.”
The real kicker, though, was uninterrupted training with coach Rafael Arutunian through the summer and into fall.
“I didn’t have to go back to school in August,” Chen said. “Through September, I was able to stay at home with him, and that helped.”
Chen isn’t leaving Yale for good. A member of the 2018 bronze medal Team USA squad, he placed fifth in the men’s event in PyeongChang. His competitive —and scholastic — timeline revolves around, hopefully, winning gold in Beijing.
“2022 is my time frame,” he said. “Post 2022, I will go back to school. I have no idea what skating will be like for me (after that) or whether I will still compete. It’s a little too far ahead.”
Where Chen makes the seemingly impossible (mostly) look easy, Zhou seems to take a rockier road.
The world bronze medalist, who is on a leave of absence from his studies at Brown University, fought off several minor injuries last month — as well as some hard falls in his Las Vegas practices — to deliver a strong performance of his free skate to “Algorithm,” a 2020 release from the British band Muse.
“When I first heard the music, it blew my mind,” said Zhou, who turns 20 on Sunday. “It really speaks to me. I can be myself skating to this. I can feel it in my body.”
Like Chen, Zhou faltered on a few of his jumps, including a fall on his opening quad lutz. He hit his second element — a quad lutz, triple toe loop combination — as well as a solid triple axel combination. The program’s highlight, a fiery closing step sequence, pushed the skater to new choreographic heights. His silver medal here is his first-ever Grand Prix hardware.
“I’m happy with the way I performed both of my programs here,” Zhou said. “Obviously, there is room for growth.”
Two-time Canadian national medalist Keegan Messing, a former U.S. competitor who placed 12th at the PyeongChang Games, was third with 266.42 points. Tomoki Hiwatashi, the 2019 world junior champion and reigning U.S. bronze medalist, was fourth.
Fall Almost Costs Bell Gold
As expected, the women’s event was a duel between U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion and Olympian who placed third in the U.S. behind Alysa Liu and Bell last season. (Liu did not compete at Skate America. At age 15, she is still too young to enter senior ISU Grand Prix events.)
Bell entered the free skate leading by 3.19 points after landing a clean triple flip-triple toe loop combination in her short program on Friday, while Tennell under rotated the second jump in her triple lutz-triple toe combination.
For the first three minutes or so of Bell’s free skate, choreographed by Bourne to ABBA tunes from “Mama Mia,” her clean, entertaining performance — though not as technically demanding as Tennell’s program — looked likely to win the day. Then a fall on her final jump, a triple lutz, made the result a bit closer than she would have liked.
“It wasn’t my best skate today,” Bell admitted. “It was a little bit stiff, but I was excited to get my long program out in a competitive setting. … I know what I need to work on for the future.”
The fall dropped Bell to fourth place in the free skate with 136.25 points. Still, when added to her short program tally, it was good enough for gold with 212.73 points. Tennell won the free skate with 137.78 points but had to settle for the silver medal with 211.07 points.
Despite winning Grand Prix gold for the first time, Bell wasn’t completely satisfied.
“I try not to look at results, but more about how I feel,” she said. “I’m walking away a little disappointed (by the fall), to be honest.”
The 24-year-old, who trains alongside Chen in Irvine, did not attempt a triple-triple combination, something she promised would change later this season at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
“(The free skate) is artistically challenging for me,” Bell said. “I’ve been learning to have new movements and really a new style of skating, which is exciting because the last two long programs I’ve had have been really different, slower. This is a little faster, a little more upbeat.”
Skating an intense program to a dramatic medley including Max Richter’s “Sarajevo,” Tennell executed two triple lutz-triple toe loop combinations, although both had deductions from the judging panel. It’s likely a flawed landing on a relatively easy jump, a triple salchow, cost her the title.
Still, the 21-year-old, who recently moved from the Chicago area to train in Colorado Springs, Colorado, under Tom Zakrajsek, walked away happy.
“I had a couple of minor injuries that prevented me from jumping fully up until last Wednesday,” Tennell said. “Actually, on practice ice yesterday (Friday), I did my first clean triple toe in a long time. … Taking it all in, I’m really happy with what I put out there today.”
Probably not as happy as Audrey Shin, though. The surprising 16-year-old from Northport, Long Island, who trains in Colorado Springs under Tammy Gambill, placed third in the free skate with a lyrical, near-clean program that included the finest triple lutz-triple toe loop combination of the event.
Shin had expected to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this fall. With those events cancelled due to COVID-19, she instead entered Skate America and won a bronze medal with 206.15 total points.
“Last year was difficult for me because I had ankle surgery in May (2019) and took a few months off of the ice,” she said. “Once I was back on the ice, I had a lot of boot and blade issues. Then, after the Youth Olympic Games (where she placed seventh), I kept trying to improve my consistency. … Getting these clean jumps in competition was a big goal.”
Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion who placed 11th at the PyeongChang Games, performed a sensitive, engaging program to “Butterfly Lovers” that gained the highest program component scores of the event. She placed second in the free and fourth overall.