NASHVILLE — Nathan Chen, one of the most successful figure skaters in U.S. history, skated in his own stratosphere on Sunday at the U.S. national championships.
Five powerful quadruple jumps that launched him high above the ice. Spins as precise as a gyroscope’s. Footwork that flowed like a fast-moving river.
He fell twice — once on a quad jump early in his free skate and again during a foot-tapping choreographed sequence to an Elton John medley — but it did not matter a bit. After his second fall, Chen playfully threw his arms into the air as if to say, aah, whatever.
“Am I to expect that?” Chen said of his mistake in his footwork. “That was just a dumb little moment.”
Who cares that his performance wasn’t perfect? Chen, who has lost only once in more than three seasons, still won his sixth consecutive national title to become the first American man to do so in 70 years.
He finished with 328.01 points, 25.53 ahead of second-place Ilia Malinin, the son of two Olympic figure skaters who represented Uzbekistan, and 37.85 points ahead of Vincent Zhou, the 2019 bronze medalist at the world championships.
Zhou, 21, is the skater who broke Chen’s winning streak in October when he won Skate America for his biggest international victory yet. At nationals, he performed a spectacular short program for a personal best score, but made several big mistakes in his free skate. He is still likely to make the Olympic team when, later Sunday, U.S. Figure Skating officials will announce which three men will represent the United States in Beijing.
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The Olympic team will be chosen on the skaters’ body of work for the past year or so, and Chen and Zhou are among the world’s top skaters.
“I was so nervous that my body froze up on me, I couldn’t get things to respond,” Zhou said about his free skate, adding that he and his coaches will go back to Colorado, where he trains, to evaluate what happened and how to fix it before the Olympics.
Chen, 22, will go to his second Olympics as the top male American skater and as the gold medal favorite. He was fifth at the 2018 Olympics after coming back from a disastrous short program to rock the free skate with an amazing six quadruple jumps, adding that sixth quad at the last second just because he could.
Malinin, 17, could be a surprise pick for the third Olympic spot, especially after his brilliant performance at nationals, where he nailed four quadruple jumps in his free skate and showed the flair and confidence of a veteran.
“I was surprised at how this came together,” Malinin said. “I think this gave me a shot to go to the Olympics, but it’s ultimately down to the committee.”
On Sunday, U.S. Figure Skating announced the three ice dance teams and two pairs teams that will go to the Beijing Games.
The U.S. Olympic ice dance teams are: Madison Chock and Evan Bates; Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker; and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
The pairs teams are Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, and Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc.
Knierim and Frazier did not compete at nationals because Frazier tested positive for the coronavirus last week and remains in his hotel room in isolation.
Of all the American skaters and teams, though, Chen is the best hope for an Olympic gold medal. He is a three-time world champion and a force on the international stage. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, is expected to be his biggest rival.
But at these Olympics, with the last several years of dominance in mind, Chen is poised to beat him.
His performance at nationals made that clear.
Under the pressure of trying to avoid the highly contagious Omicron variant, and after at least six skaters tested positive for the coronavirus at nationals, Chen remained calm and focused.
In the short program on Saturday, he broke his own event record by scoring 115.39 points to put himself in position to win yet another title. And his fellow top Americans delivered personal-best results. Both Zhou and Malinin scored more than 100 points, hinting that the U.S. men’s team could be formidable in Beijing.
“There have been many amazing performances that have been done over the history of figure skating, so I can’t say definitively that this is for sure the best, but in my career this is definitely one of the standout few,” Chen said about the short program.
Here at nationals, Chen decided to revert to his 2019-20 programs because, he said, he feels connected and comfortable with them. After losing at Skate America in October with new programs, the move to the old standbys seemed to make sense.
He skated his short program to “La Bohème” and his free skate to snippets of reworked Elton John songs, with the crowd at Bridgestone Arena giving him a standing ovation both times. On Sunday, it looked like Chen was genuinely having a good time — despite the two falls. When the last beat of music echoed throughout the arena, he laughed and smiled all the way to the kiss-and-cry area to wait for his scores.
“I have these opportunities and I want to make the best of them,” Chen said. “I want to be able to look back on my career some 10, 20 years from now and be like, you know, I really enjoyed the time that I was there. I had a lot of fun on the ice.”