Vincent Zhou competes during the Mens Short Program of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America on Oct. 22, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
LAS VEGAS — Shock reverberated around the Orleans Arena on Friday when Nathan Chen fell on the opening quadruple lutz jump early in his short program.
Moments later, there was more disbelief as Chen stepped out of his quad flip and failed to execute the required combination. Suddenly, his four-year run of Skate America men’s titles — and his more than three-year undefeated streak — was in jeopardy.
“Right now, I still have to figure out exactly what it is logistically that went wrong,” said Chen, the five-time U.S. and three-time world champion. “I didn’t skate well, that is just the bottom line right now. I’m not going to make any excuses, everything felt fine. Fortunately, this is the first event (of the season), so I have a lot of time to continue improving.”
The 82.89 points Chen earned was more than 27 points off his personal best score. It left the 22-year-old skater mired in fourth place heading into Saturday’s free skate, 14.54 points off the lead of fellow American Vincent Zhou.
It was Chen’s worst showing since his infamous 17th-place short program at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
Skate America is Chen’s first event of the season. He elected not to compete in a tune-up competition, preferring to stick with practices in Irvine, California, where he trains under longtime coach Rafael Arutunian.
“Clearly not ready enough,” a terse Chen replied. “So go back home and start working again.”
Others noted that his practices in Las Vegas, especially his triple axel, were a bit off.
“I think that (the practices) took a little bit of mental real estate in my head,” Chen said, adding, “Olympic season is always a completely different animal. I’m trying to keep up with that, but of course, today it didn’t happen.”
A bad night for Chen was a triumph for longtime rival Zhou, who has placed second to Chen at three U.S. Championships.
Zhou, who will turn 21 on Oct. 25, skated a sparkling short program to Josh Groban’s rendition of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” including a quad lutz, triple toe loop combination and quad salchow.
The U.S. silver medalist was also on top of his game on his spins and steps, and earned an impressive 97.43 points to lead Japan’s Shoma Uno (89.07), the reigning Olympic silver medalist, by more than eight points.
“I think the score is definitely good, I have definitely trained better (programs),” Zhou said. “I know being first (to skate) in the whole competition is a tough spot to be in. … I knew I had to put on a good show to set the bar right away. That was my intention tonight and I think I did a pretty good job.”
The only flaw in the program was a shaky triple axel.
“I think I just thought I had it a little too early,” Zhou said. “I checked out a little bit early, that was why my landing was forward and to the right. A little silly mistake, I can do better.”
Unlike Chen, Zhou has already competed this season, gaining mileage on his programs and testing his competitive mettle at Nebelhorn Trophy, which he won last month, and several other events.
“I feel like this season has definitely been very consistent so far, in terms of my training,” Zhou said. “I’ve been training very consistently, and my performances in training have definitely been more consistent than past seasons.”
“We’ve been working a lot this season on being able to translate that training into good practices at competitions,” he added. “I have always had a hard time practicing at competitions. I feel these weird feelings in my legs, it is very high energy, the TV lights make you sweat a lot, you feel more tired than usual, there is jet lag. I’ve had much stronger practices here. I definitely feel like I’m on the right path.”
It was also a terrific night for American Jimmy Ma, who skated one of the best short programs of his career to place third with 84.52 points.