Nathan Chen is well on his way to defending his national title and earning a spot at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. He tallied 104.45 points in his “Nemesis” short program to build a significant lead on the rest of the men’s field at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California on Thursday.
Eight years ago, Chen predicted audiences would see him at the 2018 Olympics. He won the 2010 novice men’s national title. Six years ago, the last time the national championships were in San Jose, Chen won the junior men’s national title. And four years ago, during the Sochi Olympic cycle, Chen earned his second junior national title.
Thursday, Chen debuted a new Vera Wang-designed costume – which he called the “missing link” for the early part of the season – and landed a quadruple flip, triple toe combination plus a quadruple toe and a triple Axel throughout the program. He arrived to nationals coughing, getting over being what he called “under the weather.” By his own admission, this was a “watered-down” program without a quad Lutz.
“The circumstances going into this competition weren’t great,” Chen, who also met legendary two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button earlier in the night, said. “I’ve struggled before with illness, with injury and I know that I can push through anything. Basically that’s what I tried to remind myself here and to really trust all the training that I’ve done this entire season. Trust all the competitions and use that to fuel myself for here.”
Just because a skater wins nationals doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to PyeongChang next month.
The championships are not an official Olympic Trials event, but do count towards what U.S. Figure Skating Association calls a “body of work.” The Olympic selection committee will take into account the results of nationals, the fall 2017 Grand Prix Final and the series overall, plus additional competitions from the prior season. Based on all of this, the 2018 Olympic Figure Skating Team will be chosen to compete in PyeongChang, South Korea in February.
However, Chen ticks many of those boxes: He won the 2017 Four Continents Championships in February, both of his Grand Prix assignments, and December’s Grand Prix Final. Another box is the 2018 national title, all taken into consideration before the men’s Olympic team (three spots) is announced on Sunday morning.
Adam Rippon, Chen’s training partner, trails him in second place by 7.93 points. Rippon, now 28, has been through the Olympic cycle twice before but never made the team. He won his first national title in 2016, and, this time last year, missed the 2017 nationals with a broken foot.
Rippon opened his short program with a triple flip, triple toe combination. He also received positive Grades of Execution on his triple Axel and triple Lutz to score 96.52 points. This season, he’s earned silver at both his Grand Prix assignments and qualified for the Final.
Jason Brown, 2014 Olympian, skated to “The Room Where it Happens” from the Broadway smash hit Hamilton. The quad-less short program garnered 93.23 points and moved him to third place.
Commentator Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion, said that Brown would be the whole package if he had a quad. Brown also qualified for the exclusive Grand Prix Final, making him a threat for the 2018 Olympic team.
Fourth at nationals the past two years, Grant Hochstein sits in fourth place with 92.18. His program to “Your Song” from the “Moulin Rouge!” soundtrack received a standing ovation from the San Jose audience.
“My program is dedicated to my fiancée Caroline, and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about the Olympics, it’s about love. Love overcomes everything,” and he added, laughing, “Even a bad Grand Prix season.”
Caroline Zhang was the 2007 world junior champion. Hochstein expects this to be his final season as a competitive skater.
Vincent Zhou, another teen in the Olympic conversation, had a rough Grand Prix season but during his short program, landed one quad but struggled on his quad combination and triple Axel. He sits in fifth place with 89.02 points.
2013 national champion Max Aaron struggled through his “Les Miserables” short program, scoring 74.95 points and leaving him in 12th place. He said his shot at the Olympic Games were over on the NBCSN broadcast:
“It just was heartbreaking coming out there, first mistake. I have two big elements in the beginning of the program. The big mistake on the on the quad Sal[chow]. The second quad, no combo, and it was two footed. After that I knew, my Olympic shot was over. I could feel the tears rolling down my eyes. You know, it is what it is. I’m proud of myself. I gave it everything I had. I have no regrets. Looking forward to the long [program] and putting a smile on my parents’ faces. Can’t wait to get out there again.”
The men’s free skate is Saturday night.