Nathan Chen performs in the men's free skate during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 27, 2021 in Stockholm.
The 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships kick off at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville next week, with junior events starting on Tuesday.
Home to the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville is most famous as a country music hub, but newly built rinks have helped to create a thriving figure skating community. When the city hosted the 1997 U.S. Championships, Tara Lipinski won gold a year before her victory at the Olympic Winger Games Nagano 1998 and Todd Eldredge claimed the fourth of his six U.S. titles.
Some 25 years later, here are the storylines to follow:
Nathan Chen Tries For Sixth Straight U.S. Title
In his teleconference with reporters last week, Nathan Chen made news. The three-time world champion will perform his routines from the 2019-20 season — a short program to Charles Aznavour’s version of “La Bohème” and free skate to an Elton John medley, including “Rocketman” — in Nashville.
At least, that’s what we think he will do. The five-time U.S. champion was a bit reluctant to reveal his hand.
“I’m still playing around with different programs,” Chen, 22, said. “I really like the 2019-20 programs, and I never got the chance to compete them at worlds; the season was ended prematurely (due to the Covid pandemic).”
Both programs were choreographed by Chen’s longtime choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne, the 2003 world ice dance champion.
“All of the content Shae has done these past three seasons has been awesome, there’s a lot of fun stuff to play around with, so that’s kind of where I’m at right now,” Chen said, adding that his programs in Beijing, where the 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist is expected to contend for individual gold, are still “TBD.”
Chen competed the “La Bohème” and “Rocketman” programs at the 2019 Grand Prix Final, earning personal best scores for both performances and a total of 335.30 points — an international record that still stands. Early-season performances of his new programs, including a free skate set to Mozart selections, were so-so by his standards. In October, he placed third at Skate America, his first individual loss since the 2018 Olympics, where he placed fifth.
“The program felt a little off,” Chen said. “That’s not to say it might not feel (better) in the future, but there are other programs I feel a little bit more connected to. Again, it’s great to have options.”
Chen rebounded from his loss at Skate America to win Skate Canada the following week, landing five quadruple jumps in his free skate. He played coy when a reporter asked about his planned program content in Nashville.
“You’ll see what you see,” Chen said, adding that his early-season loss did not affect his preparation under coach Rafael Arutunian, or his confidence.
“Even if a great skate happens or a bad skate happens, I don’t think wholesale changes should occur,” he said. “Stick to your strengths, stick to what you know how to do, keep pushing forward. When something happens, it’s really easy to scrap everything. That’s definitely not the case (with me). I’m happy with where I currently am.”
Vincent Zhou, who defeated Chen at Skate America to win his first Grand Prix title, hinted at boot problems during his teleconference.
“I’ve had a unique set of challenges and I’m doing my best to work through things and stay on track,” he said. “I would prefer to not elaborate too much.”
Like Chen, Zhou returned to old programs this season. His brilliant free skate at Skate America to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” included five clean quadruple jumps.
Equipment problems or not, he refused to concede the U.S. title to Chen.
“There is no real point in going into nationals thinking the best I can do is second place,” said Zhou, a three-time U.S. silver medalist behind Chen. “That’s not a helpful mindset.”
Three U.S. men’s spots in Beijing are on the line, and results in Nashville play a large role in the selection process. Like Chen and Zhou, Jason Brown qualified for the Grand Prix Final and is favored to make his second Olympic team. He won team bronze in Sochi in 2014.
Brown, too, returned to old programs for his Olympic push: a short to “Sinnerman” and free skate to “Schindler’s List.”
“I did not want to go into this season with any sort of doubt in the programs I was doing, and how they were received, and how I would feel performing them,” he said.
Other men to watch include Ilia Malinin, a 17-year-old who won two Junior Grand Prix events this fall; veteran Jimmy Ma, who has earned his best international results this season; and Yaroslav Paniot, fourth in the U.S. in 2021.