Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier perform in Pairs Free Skating during ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 25, 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Not since December 2018, at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, British Columbia, had Chen taken a tumble in competition. That streak ended at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, when the two-time defending world champion failed to complete the fourth rotation in his first jump, a quadruple Lutz, and landed on his backside.
Surprised reporters asked Chen in the virtual mixed zone how that felt.
“Uh, I wasn’t thrilled,” the skater dryly responded, then added, “As soon as I took off, I was like, ‘This is not going well, this is not the right take-off, just try to bail out without wasting too much energy.’ Streaks end. (I’ll) just do my best to not keep falling.”
Chen recovered admirably, landing a solid triple Axel and quadruple flip, triple toe loop combination. If his impersonation of El Mariachi, Antonio Banderas’ character in the 1995 film “Desperado,” lacked some of its usual panache, that was understandable.
“You have to regroup, really think about what you are doing, analyze quickly, to try to prevent further mistakes happening,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s always difficult to start off programs with a mistake. Things probably slowed down a little bit (after the fall), but ultimately I’m glad I was able to stay on my feet for the other jumps.”
A second streak — the four-time U.S. champion’s string of 13 titles in a row since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 — is also in jeopardy. Chen’s rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, skated his hard rock short with confidence and aggression, amassing 106.98 points and an eight-point lead over the third-place Chen heading into Saturday’s free skate. Hanyu’s younger teammate, the fast-rising Yuma Kagiyama, sits second with 100.96 points.
“Medals are so out of my control,” Chen said. “If I focus on trying to come in to beat this person, or try to do this or whatnot, I feel like I am putting the wrong foot in the door, essentially, and not thinking about the right things.”
He added, “So now, I take a little bit of time to analyze the (quad) Lutz — I have to do a Lutz in the long as well — to figure out what went wrong and put myself in the position to do it better.”
The jump is not one of Chen’s more reliable weapons; he stepped out of it in his free skate at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. But it is worth 11.50 points, more than any other jump being done in Stockholm, and helps give Chen technical edge over Hanyu, who does not often complete the jump. Should Chen and coach Rafael Arutunian, who trains the skater in Irvine, California, decide to remove it from Saturday’s free skate, it will be more difficult to make up ground.
“It is an option (to remove the quad Lutz), but I kind of do want to attempt it again, I know I can do it,” Chen said. “If it’s not there in practice the next couple of days, though, what’s the point in risking it? That will be more of a gameday decision.”
As shocking as Chen’s fall was, it was not the biggest stunner of the men’s short program event.
Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist who placed second to Chen at the 2021 U.S. Championships, fell twice on jumps in his short to “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and failed to cleanly land a third jump. His 70.31 points put him in 25th place out of 33 skaters. Since only the top 24 men compete in the free skate, Zhou’s world championships is over.
“It is my first international competition in two years, I missed last season due to college, so maybe there is a little bit of big stage jitters,” said Zhou, who is on leave from Brown University. “But as a top American athlete and someone who has proven they belong at the top of the world in the past, that’s absolutely not an excuse. I should not let that affect me.”
Zhou’s disaster is all the more puzzling, considering the 20-year-old skater looked solid in practices this week. During the six-minute warm-up to his short program, he landed a quad Lutz, triple toe loop combination.
“I was really nervous, I had stomach butterflies but in my whole body,” he said. “My legs felt stiff. My mental script was just going, ‘Shut up, do your job, you’re fine, you’re out here to have a good time.’”
“Sometimes things just don’t happen the way you want them to,” he added. “You can train as much as you want, you can prepare as much as you want physically and mentally, and sometimes it’s just not your day.”
The disappointment put more pressure on Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion who placed third to Chen and Zhou at the 2021 U.S. Championships. In order to enter three men at the 2022 Olympic Games, Team USA’s top two placements cannot total more than 13. With Zhou out of the running, Brown needed to produce.
The 26-year-old did so with a superlative performance to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” so compelling that it seemed to go by in a flash.
But while Brown’s spins, steps and musicality were spectacular, his triple Axel looked a bit tight.
“I took off and I was like, ‘Jason, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze as tight as you can,’” he said. “Obviously, my goal is to get +5 (grade of execution) on everything, make everything look effortless, crisp and clean. Today was a little bit more of a fight, but I’m proud of the fight I did.”
Brown gained full value for the triple Axel, as well as his other jumps, and his program component scores (PCS) were the third highest of the event, just a shade under Hanyu’s and Chen’s. But he did not include a quad jump; the omission limited him to seventh place and 91.25 points.
“Every single day we train both (quad toe and Salchow), all the time,” said Brown, who is coached by Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser in Toronto, Ontario. “At this time, Salchow is more consistent than the toe, so we decided to throw it in (the free skate on Saturday). I’m striving hard to get them both in, as soon as possible.”
Chen and Brown’s current placements, third and seventh, add up to 10. So — barring another disaster in the free skate — Team USA will likely gain the opportunity to send three men to Beijing. Under new International Figure Skating (ISU) rule, though, a U.S. man other than Brown or Chen must compete at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, this fall to earn this third spot.
“I feel like I let my country and my teammates down today,” Zhou said.
U.S. Pairs Gain Top Ten Finishes
When Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc placed sixth in Wednesday’s short program, and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier finished seventh, hopes were high that, for the first time in decades, Team USA would qualify three pairs spots for the Olympic Games.
It was not to be.
Knierim and Frazier, who won Skate America last fall and the U.S. title in January with clean programs, came down to earth in Stockholm. In their free skate on Thursday, Knierim stepped out of the landings of both of her triple jumps and landed an otherwise fine throw triple loop on two feet.
The remaining elements — including a big opening triple twist, strong throw triple flip and three lifts — earned top marks, and they placed seventh with 192.10 points.
“I’ve never been more prepared for an event in my whole skating career,” Knierim said. “I have been making a lot of progress on my side-by-side jumps. Throw loop is one of our better elements, and it has just been off this week … I just felt like the whole program was kind of like, trying to find myself.”
Knierim, who won three U.S. titles and the 2018 Olympic team bronze medal with former partner (and husband) Chris Knierim, denied that heavy expectations thwarted the new pair in Stockholm.
“Nobody forces it on me, but sometimes I take on the role of trying to be perfect every time,” she said. “I’m just upset I wasn’t able to do that. I know I am capable of it. I think the pressure only came from myself, not from the media or anyone around me. Everyone gives me love and support.”
Frazier, the 2017 U.S. champion with former partner Haven Denney, credited Knierim with much of the pair’s early success.
“I share the feeling of always wanting to be consistent and perfect, but at the end of the day, so much credit goes to Alexa about how well she has led the team this season,” he said. “I know we are equals and help each other, but she has done so many great things this year … It’s an inspiration we are going to continue to build on.”
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, too, had trouble with the jumps, with LeDuc doubling an intended triple loop and Cain-Gribble, a Salchow.
Still, the Texas-based team’s free skate to Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” was packed with passion and energy. The 2019 U.S. champions placed ninth with 185.31 points.
“We love this program, and we wanted to hit it a little bit stronger, just to showcase everything we do well,” Le Duc said. “We did some of those things today and missed some of the others, particularly the loop on my part. It’s not something we are going to back down from. We are always going to push ourselves forward as a team.”
“We’re going to try to put together two strong programs (next season) that are going to be good vehicles for us, continue to push the elements and come out stronger,” Cain-Gribble said.
Still, Team USA will bring two pairs to the Beijing Games, one more than it took to PyeongChang in 2018. LeDuc is encouraged by seeing two U.S. pairs in the world top ten.
“We are seeing improvement in U.S. pairs, each year the placements are getting higher and higher,” he said. “It would have been great to get three spots, we really wanted those, but having (three spots) be a realistic part of the conversation is really exciting. Four years from now, let’s see if we can do it.”
Two Figure Skating Federation of Russia pairs coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, and Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in Stockholm. China's two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong claimed the silver medal.