Nathan Chen competes in the men's short program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Orleans Arena on Jan. 16, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s high noon, the gunslinger is back in Las Vegas, and he’s not firing any blanks.
On Saturday, Nathan Chen took a significant step to a fifth straight U.S. title with a commanding short program that gained a six-point lead at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, which is being held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The free skate is Sunday.
Chen’s “El Mariachi” character, from Antonio Banderas’ 1995 movie “Desperado,” first took Las Vegas by storm at Skate America in October, and the character has only grown tougher, sharper and faster since then.
This time out, the 21-year-old Chen reeled off a quadruple lutz, followed by a triple axel and a quad flip-triple toe loop combination in the program’s second half. He also fired on all cylinders with his step sequence and spins, maintaining smoldering intensity throughout the 2-minute, 40-second routine. If the cardboard cutouts could have risen from their seats, they would have given his program a standing ovation.
Still, the perfectionist Chen wasn’t completely satisfied. He left the ice wincing and shaking his head.
“The landings were a little bit off,” he said. “The footwork was a little bit choppy in the first half, until I got my bearings. Besides that, I was happy.”
The two-time and reigning world champion was harder on himself, than the judges were. The seven-member panel awarded Chen 113.92 points, a shade under his tally last season but still a monster score.
At the post-event press conference, Chen’s remarks centered less on his quads, than how grateful he was for the opportunity to compete inside U.S. Figure Skating’s bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As I’ve said many times, I’m thrilled to be here,” said the rising junior at Yale University, who has taken time off school to train full-time with coach Rafael Arutunian in Irvine, California.
“Everything is just so unexpected,” he added. “The fact that we are all here, we are all healthy, that we are able to do this, is incredible. It’s been hard for everybody, and I’m really impressed how everyone has still been able to put their stuff together.”
It’s good for Chen that he was in near-top form, because Vincent Zhou skated the short program of his life.
Performing to Josh Groban’s rendition of Don McLean’s classic “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” choreographed by Lori Nichol, the 20-year-old looked smoother and more fluid than ever before. There was no telegraphing or hesitation on his jumps, including an opening quadruple lutz-triple toe combination, quad salchow and triple axel. Steps flowed easily into spins.
When the score — 107.79 points, his highest tally ever — came up, Zhou thrust his fist in the air.
“That performance is a result of the work Lori and I have done on my skating, my movement, my momentum,” said Zhou, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, under a group headed by Christy Krall. “The program is choreographed to be like that, it just took a bit of time for me to develop my skating to where I could approach my jumps without making it look like I was setting up beforehand.”
Getting hurt is rarely a good thing, but Zhou credits a pair of what he called “minor” injuries — bilateral ankle trouble at Skate America in October, which took him off ice for two weeks, followed by a wrenched back his second day back at the rink, resulting in another two-week lay-off — for helping him to focus and kick his U.S. championships’ preparations into high gear.
“After (the injuries), I had an eight-week period leading up to now where every single week I was setting goals and working toward specific things and making notable, tangible progress,” Zhou said.
“I’ve done a lot of work with Ben Agosto and Josh Farris on my momentum and using my body line, my hips and my alignment to propel myself across the ice with less effort,” he added. “I think that is paying off. I think my skating skills have come a long way.”
Agosto, a five-time U.S. ice dance champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist (with Tanith Belbin), and Farris, a men’s junior world champion and U.S. medalist, are on the coaching staff of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor World Arena.
He didn’t try any quadruple jumps, but Jason Brown, who sits third with 100.92 points, may have had the performance of the day with his short to a jazzy version of “Sinnerman.”
Where Chen and Zhou grabbed attention with quads, Brown used angular contemporary dance movements — lunges, leaps, knee slides — to state his case. His jumps, including a stellar triple axel, were strong, and his finesse earned him the highest program components score — 48.80 points, to Chen’s 47.70 — of the event.
Brown, who trains in Toronto under Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser, did not compete at Skate America. The U.S. championships is his first live competition since he placed second to two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at the 2020 Four Continents, almost a year ago.
“This event was a long time coming, so I think I was a little jittery out there, excited and antsy,” Brown, 26, said. “For the most part I’m really pleased with the way I was able to keep getting back in my knees, stay relaxed and calm, and be able to push through it.”
The 2015 U.S. champion, who said he will include a quadruple toe loop in his free skate on Sunday, thinks there is still a place for artistry in the sport, along with multiple quadruple jumps.
“I know sometimes people might look at me and question my technical ability but I don’t doubt it anymore,” Brown said. “I think there are times when I did, and I wondered if there was an avenue for me, but the more that I’ve continued to progress and continue to see the progress that I'm making and with my coaches pushing me every day, I just learned to forge my own path.”
Yaroslav Paniot, a two-time Ukrainian champion who now lives and trains in California under former world champion Todd Eldredge, sits fourth with 83.74 points. Maxim Naumov, the 2020 U.S. junior champion, is fifth with 83.53 points.