Nathan Chen performs in the ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Ericsson Globe on March 27, 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Nathan Chen capped his 2020-21 campaign with a win in the men’s free skate at the World Team Trophy (WTT) in Osaka, Japan, on Friday, defeating two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by nearly 10 points.
The three-time world champion wasn’t quite perfect; he singled an intended triple flip at the back end of a quadruple toe loop combination. Still, he hit four quad jumps and two triple Axels in his four-minute routine to selections from minimalist composer Phillip Glass, and still harnessed enough energy for liquid spins and an exhilarating closing step sequence.
“I made a little mistake on that flip — a big mistake, I shouldn’t downplay it,” Chen, 21, said, adding that his overwhelming emotion was gratitude that WTT took place at all, given the havoc COVID-19 has played with the world’s sports calendar.
“To be able to compete at Skate America and then U.S. Championships and, of course, worlds, and now World Team Trophy, truly means a lot to athletes,” Chen said. “It really lends meaning to why we go to the rink every day and train so hard.
“Of course, we love it and all of that, that goes without saying, but to have these opportunities gives meaning to what we do, and I’m truly thankful.”
The 203.24 points Chen earned in Osaka did not approach his free skate score at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm last month, where he skated a mistake-free program with five quads. It will also not give Team USA a victory here; Team Russia leads by an insurmountable eight points heading into the event’s final day.
But it was more than enough to extend Chen’s personal winning streak to 11 live events, in addition to a virtual event held by U.S. Figure Skating last fall. He has not tasted defeat since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. The one small blemish on his record is a third-place finish in the short program in Stockholm last month, which he overcame with his brilliant free skate.
“I think all athletes want to go to competitions and win and do the very best they can, skate perfectly clean,” Chen, who lives and trains in Artesia, California, said. “For me, focusing entirely on doing that doesn’t help me perform better. If anything, it makes my performance worse.”
“The streak … is something I am really happy about, but inevitably it is going to end, whether it is this competition or the next or the following competition,” he added. “These guys are so good, I can’t ever become complacent where I am. These guys are always becoming stronger and stronger. Especially coming to the Olympic season, they are going to get even stronger.”
Chen has now defeated Hanyu the last four times the two skaters have met, including twice within the past three weeks.
In Osaka, Hanyu had a strong free skate, landing three quads and two triple Axels. But the Japanese star popped an intended quad Salchow jump into a single and entered the mixed zone shaking his head.
“I was disappointed in my free program,” Hanyu said. “I had a big mistake with my Salchow.”
Hanyu has not yet said whether he intends to compete at the Beijing Games next year, to try for a third consecutive gold medal. Most of his talks with the media focus on his intention to become the first skater to land the four-and-a-half revolution quad Axel jump. Still, he also seems determined to defeat Chen.
“I need to train more and more,” he said.
Chen’s free skate win banked 12 points for Team USA, but the team lost ground when Jason Brown, who placed third in the short program, popped an intended triple Axel into a single and fell on a triple Lutz. The U.S. bronze medalist placed eighth, contributing five points to the team.
There was a bright spot in Brown’s free skate to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” — the 26-year-old stood up on a quad Salchow, although it was judged under rotated by the technical panel. Brown is renowned for his skating skills and artistry but has yet to land a clean quad in competition.
“Every day here I did it (in practice), I did it in the six-minute warmup,” he said. “I’m so proud of the attack and the confidence I’m gaining with going after it in competition, with the pressure and working through that.”
In other action on this second day of the WTT, a three-day biennial event, pairs took the ice for their short programs while ice dancers performed their free dances.
Victories from two world champion teams, pair Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov and ice dancers Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, gave Team Russia 91 points and put the figure skating powerhouse on the cusp of winning WTT for the first time. Team USA, the defending champions, sit second with 83 points while Team Japan is third with 78 points.
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker had mixed feelings on Friday. The three-time U.S. bronze medalists were delighted to compete in Japan but frustrated by their free dance score.
“We came into this competition having no idea we were going to partake in it,” Hawayek said. “Before worlds we were told for sure (U.S. champions) Maddie (Hubbell) and Zach (Donohue) were going. And then on our flight back from Sweden, we got a call saying, ‘Do you want to go to WTT?’ and both of us were so thrilled for the opportunity.”
The ice dancers are puzzled by international judges’ response to their free skate, set to a mix of Phillip Glass selections and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” The program earned 110.16 points in Osaka, placing third behind Team Russia and Team Italy. The score is more than ten points lower than what it garnered at Skate America last fall.
“I think we will go back to the drawing board and figure out what is going to be the best game plan for next year,” Baker said. “For sure, you won’t be seeing the disco (rhythm dance) anymore, and I don’t know, we will find out what is going to happen with the free. We might have two new programs, but again we’re just going to go back to the drawing board and find out what we need to do.”
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier landed clean side-by-side triple toe loops in their short program and showed one of the event’s strongest lifts, but Knierim fell on the landing of a throw triple loop. The U.S. pairs champions, who teamed up last spring after long careers with former partners, placed third.
“That was the only (throw loop) this week we’ve missed,” Knierim said. “It’s always a bummer when it’s the one in the program. But again, it helps us get more experience. We haven’t fallen in the short in a competition, so how do we rally together after? The program was well skated, and it didn’t change when that happened. I thought it was a really strong performance.”
WTT concludes on Saturday with the women’s and pairs free skates. Team USA captain Brown is planning a big send-off.
“We are going to be in the team box, cheering loud and proud,” he said. “I can’t wait for the final day of competition.”