Nathan Chen skates in the Men's Free Skate during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating at Orleans Arena Oct. 24, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It seems every time Nathan Chen steps on to the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, he makes a little history.
In 2010, at age 10, he became the youngest novice champion in history. Six seasons later, he began setting records for landing the most quadruple (four revolution) jumps ever at the U.S. championships.
Last season, Chen equaled the feats of Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins and Hayes Alan Jenkins by winning his fourth consecutive U.S. title. And if he triumphs this week at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas, he will become the first man since Richard “Dick” Button to win five consecutive U.S. crowns.
“I think that would be something that I can cherish dearly for the rest of my life, if that is able to happen,” Chen, 21, told reporters on a teleconference last week. “But, as of now, as I always say, it's difficult to predict results. Just as long as I can train as best as I can, prepare myself as best as I can and go to the competition, and do everything I can, I'll be satisfied with the results.”
All five of those champions also won Olympic titles; Button won two, in 1948 and 1952. Chen hopes this is a good omen.
“The Olympics, that’s on the back of everyone’s mind,” said Chen, who has taken a leave of absence from Yale University to devote himself to training for Beijing 2022. “Olympics are coming up. It’s about a year plus out from the Games. So of course, that’s the main motivator.”
Some 10 weeks ago at Skate America, Chen was in solid if not brilliant form, performing two diverse, superbly crafted programs created by long-time choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne. He landed three quads in his free skate, popping two other jumps. Still, he easily won his fifth Skate America title, defeating Vincent Zhou by 24 points.
Don’t expect any big changes in Chen’s programs this week, although the skater does want to free up some precious seconds in his four-minute free skate to better show his step sequences.
“I tried to expand time for the (choreographed) steps by sneaking a couple seconds here and there throughout the program,” Chen said. “But the programs are so technically loaded right now, it’s hard to steal some time before certain elements, just because I need a certain amount of time to prep for a (quad) salchow, a certain amount of time to prep for a (quad) toe loop. So, we’ve been trying to just reorganize the program a little bit, so I have more time for the steps.”
Chen and coach Rafael Arutunian, who trains the skater in Irvine, California, often change the jump content and layout of his programs. At the 2018 Olympics, Chen attempted six quads in his free skate, landing five cleanly. At the Las Vegas Invitational, a U.S. team event held immediately following Skate America, he landed a quad loop, a jump he rarely tries and had not landed in competition since 2017.
Last week, Chen told reporters on the teleconference which, and how many, quads he does in Las Vegas will be a “game-time” decision.
“I would love to (do a quad loop) but probabilities of success have been quite low recently in practice,” Chen said. “So that is sort of a game-time decision. If I’m able to get my success rate up a little bit, then I think that I’ll have a higher chance of putting it in. If it’s going the current way that it is going now, probably not.”
Chen’s drive for the five-peat takes center stage, but other storylines abound:
Chen, the two-time world champion (2018, 2019), garners most of the headlines. But Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou are stars in their own right.
With quad jumps dominating so many skaters’ programs, the 26-year-old Brown is unique: his greatest strengths are musicality, performance quality and superlative spins and steps. At the 2020 U.S. championships, his total program component scores (PCS) were just a shade lower than Chen’s — amazing, considering he did not land a quadruple jump. Chen and Zhou routinely include three or four quads in their free skates.
“I’m planning the (quad) toe loop in both programs,” Brown said. “I work on both (toe loop and salchow), trying to push forward and have that (competitive) mentality. I’m eyeing the 2021-2022 Olympic season, as far as that end game.”
The 2015 U.S. champion, who trains in Toronto, is the only top U.S. single skater who did not compete at Skate America. He placed second at U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Points Challenge, a virtual competition held in the fall, many points behind Chen but far ahead of the rest of the field. This week is his first live competition since February, when he won a silver medal behind two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul, South Korea.
“Hopefully, it will be like riding a bike,” Brown said.
Zhou, 20, won silver at Skate America, his first-ever ISU Grand Prix medal. He did not participate in the ISP Points Challenge. Like Chen, he is renowned for his quadruple jumps; this season, he is showing improved skating skills and challenging himself artistically, with two intricate and passionate programs.
“He’s doing two very juxtaposed programs, bringing out his artistic sense,” Christy Krall, who coaches Zhou in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said. “Because he’s a better technician, he can let himself interpret the music more and entertain the crowd. … He’s got a vision. Desire creates the power, and he exudes that.”
Tomoki Hiwatashi, third at the 2020 U.S. championships and a training partner of Zhou, will again challenge for the podium; he placed third in the ISP Points Challenge and fourth at Skate America, behind Chen, Zhou and Canada’s Keegan Messing.
A Women’s Field Packed With Contenders
Alysa Liu, 15, arrived in Las Vegas as the two-time reigning champion. In 2019, at age 13, she landed two triple axels in her free skate; last season, she added a quadruple lutz to her repertoire. Although she failed to land the quad cleanly at the 2020 U.S. championships, two triple axels in her free skate helped her climb from second place after the short program to win the title.
This season, Liu is a question mark. Last spring, she left her lifelong coach, Laura Lipetsky, to train under former ice dance competitor Massimo Scali in Oakland, California, and virtually with Toronto coach Lee Barkell. More recently, four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott joined her coaching team.
Too young to compete at Skate America, Liu placed fourth at the ISP Points Challenge and struggled in her free skate at the Las Vegas Invitational, held immediately following Skate America. She did not land a triple axel at either event.
“Obviously, you want to win, but the most important thing will be to skate my best,” Liu told NBC Sports. “You can win and skate bad, and you don’t feel so good about yourself. I would rather skate very well and not focus on placement.”
Since Liu’s greatest advantage at the U.S. championships has been her jumps, the door is open for 2020 silver medalist Mariah Bell and 2018 champion Bradie Tennell to claim the title this week.
Bell edged Tennell at Skate America, largely on the strength of her short program; she placed fourth in the free skate and did not execute a triple-triple combination.
“I try not to look at results, but more about how I feel,” Bell said at Skate America. “I’m walking away a little disappointed, to be honest.”
Tennell, winner of the free skate at Skate America, battled what she called “a few minor injuries” at that competition, and may be rounding into her best form this week.
All three skaters will be challenged by several dark horses in the field, including Audrey Shin, the 16-year-old surprise Skate America bronze medalist; 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen, who showed good form at Skate America; and Amber Glenn, who hopes to land a triple axel this week.
Chock And Bates Slither Back Into The Limelight
We last saw Madison Chock and Evan Bates nearly one year ago, at the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. There, they won gold over longtime U.S. rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who placed third.
The reigning U.S. ice dance champions chose not to compete at either the ISP Challenge or Skate America, preferring to hunker down and train with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.
“I had a concussion over the summer break, not from skating,” Chock said. “I took the time to heal and do some rehab, so (I have) no residual side effects. We decided not to do Skate America; we wanted to be in our best shape, and at that time, we had not trained as much as we would have liked.”
Said Bates: “We weren’t where we would want to be to compete, and show our programs. We switched our focus to the U.S. championships.”
A few months later, the couple arrives in Las Vegas fit and confident. They kept both of their 2019-20 programs, including a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and their popular “Snake Charmer” free dance. Significant changes were made to the rhythm dance, including new step sequences, while improvements to the free dance are more subtle.
“Working on a program two years is something we’ve never done before,” Bates said. “It has allowed us to implement more of the improvement in our technique and add detail work and layers.”
It will take every skill Chock and Bates possess to defeat Hubbell and Donohue. At Skate America, the two-time U.S. champions (2018, 2019) impressed with their sensitive yet powerful free dance to a medley of Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang’s renditions of the classic ballad “Hallelujah,” winning a third straight title.
“This is a program we are very passionate about,” Hubbell said of the program, which was choreographed with Canada’s two-time Olympic champion Scott Moir. “We feel we already have an easy time skating it, because every part of it feels so purposeful.”
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who train alongside Chock and Bates, and Hubbell and Donohue, in Montreal, look strong to win their third consecutive bronze medal. Another top team, Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, withdrew from the event, citing exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
Knierim And Frazier Seek To Build On Skate America Win
After skating together just six months, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier burst on to the scene at Skate America with two near-clean programs packed with content: a strong triple twist, solid triple throw jumps, impressive lifts and two different side-by-side triple jumps, toe loop and salchow.
Now, they must build on that excellence at the U.S. championships.
“You shouldn't be scared of expectations or hype, you just have to learn how to channel it to your advantage,” said Knierim, who won three U.S. titles (2015, 2018, 2020) and a 2018 Olympic team bronze medal with her husband, Chris Knierim.
“I think one thing Brandon and I have, is very good communication with one another,” she added. “So I think that heading into nationals, if there is any type of different feelings that we may have compared to Skate America, we’re going to be able to talk about it and get each other in the right head space.”
“There’s always the emotions, and the stakes are always high,” Frazier, the 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney, said. “But Alexa and I have been doing an outstanding job of staying in our zone and doing what we both love to do, and that’s all it is going to be about this week.”
Todd Sand, who with wife Jenni Meno coaches the skaters in Irvine, California, has been concentrating on the finer details of the pair’s performance.
“First, we’ve been working on more speed and power throughout their programs,” he said. “We’ve been trying to fine tune some of the transitions that we felt could improve. And then, it’s about trying to make every fingertip perfect, trying to get every knee bend and weight distribution from one edge to the next right together, so that they’re skating as one.”
Knierim and Frazier are by no means shoo-ins. Their training partners, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, won the U.S. silver medal last season with a show-stopping free skate, and placed second at Skate America. They could steal the show again in Las Vegas.
“They have been homing in on their jumps, and since Skate America, Jessica has been working regularly with one of Rafael Arutunian’s assistants, Hov (Mkrtchian),” Sand said. “We’ve been similarly working on a lot of the details, trying to smooth out as many things as we possibly can dissect.”
The California pairs will be challenged by 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, as well as Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, who edged Cain-Gribble and LeDuc for the bronze medal at Skate America by just 0.42 points.