Clearly back on his game, Nathan Chen set a short program record at the US figure skating championships on Saturday.
With a performance full of superb footwork and spins – there were two massive quads in it, too – Chen sent a message to all his competitors, here and abroad. His 115.39 points beat the nationals mark of 114.13 he set in 2020.
That was too high, above the ice and on the judges’ score sheets, for Vincent Zhou. Chen’s main competition here was excellent, though, appearing relaxed and confident throughout his program as he nailed the same quad lutz-triple toe loop that Chen did for a score of 112.78 that also was a personal best.
Ilia Malinin, 17, jumped his way to third place ahead of veteran Jason Brown, 103.46 to 100.84, in a brilliant display of skating for most of the men’s field.
“I mean, it’s amazing to have such strong US competitors, especially heading into an Olympic season,” Chen said. “Regardless who gets to go, we’ll have a really strong team there. But you focus on yourself, I can’t control anything else.”
Chen’s struggles at October’s Skate America were stunning given his run of 14 consecutive victories since the 2018 Olympics. His quick return to the top began a week later with a win at Skate Canada, and Saturday, he was as good as ever.
Chen, 22, and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan will be the favorites at the Beijing Games. No man has won three consecutive Olympic golds in the modern era. Chen has not lost to Hanyu since Pyeongchang, when a fiasco in the short program doomed Chen’s chances. Hanyu recently won the Japanese nationals, but his short program score was more than four points lower than Chen’s on Saturday.
Zhou, 21, has ridden something of a roller coaster in his senior career, highlighted by a bronze medal at the 2019 worlds, three US silver medals behind Chen, and the Skate America triumph earlier this year.
Last March, he fell apart in the short program at the world championships and didn’t even qualify for the free skate. That forced him to participate in the Nebelhorn Trophy to secure a third men’s Olympic spot for the US; in a clutch performance, he won.
Now, Zhou seems destined for his second Olympics; he was sixth in South Korea, one spot behind Chen.
Malinin, a rising force on the US scene after a strong previous season in the junior ranks, has been referred to by his fans as a “quad god”. He certainly lived up to that billing with a quad-filled program and some dynamic spins.
“My reaction was surprising to see it,” Malinin said of his score, “because I kind of dreamed of getting over 100, but I never knew I could do it. Now that I think about it, if you put in the time and the effort you can achieve anythin
Brown, 27, made the US squad for the 2014 Sochi Games, earning a bronze medal in the team event when he performed the free skate. He was beaten out for the 2018 Olympics, but displayed once more his staying power in Saturday’s short program.
Getting to Nashville probably was more challenging logistically than performance-wise for Brown, given the snowstorm and frigid temperatures this week.
“After 33 hours of travel, 5 cancelled flights, 4 airline changes, 3 airports, 2 countries, an overnight in Atlanta, a rental car, and a ton of help… We officially made it to Nashville!” he posted on social media.
Then he put out a flowing, powerful, high-speed routine that had the crowd on its feet well before Brown finished with a flourish, then sat on the ice, soaking in the cheers.
Still, unable to match the quads of Malinin, Brown’s 100.84 points placed him fourth – with that ever-present smile on his face anyway.
“For me it was the only thing I knew was the reaction of the crowd, which was awesome to see them all on their feet,” he said. “And then the scores came up. But for me it’s what you can do in that moment, putting your best foot forward and skating your skate. I can only win at my own game.”
Liu joins Bell, Chen on US figure skating team for OlympicsAlysa Liu certainly didn’t look as if she was suffering from Covid-19 on Saturday, when her smiling face was beamed into Bridgestone Arena by Zoom following the announcement of the American team headed for the Beijing Olympics.
The biggest question now: When will her quarantine period end?
Liu joined US champion Mariah Bell and runner-up Karen Chen in making the three-woman squad, even though she was forced to withdraw from nationals following a positive test. Liu wound up watching the free skate with her friends during a Facetime chat from her Nashville hotel room, where she will stay until she can return two negative tests.
Only then can she travel back to her training base in Colorado and begin preparing for next month’s Winter Games.
“I’m actually feeling fine,” said the 16-year-old Liu, a two-time national champion who was in third place after short program. “I mean, it depends how quickly I can test negative. I literally have no idea about anything. I’m guessing I’m just going to stay here until I don’t have Covid anymore, in this hotel room I’ve been staying at.”
What has she been up to during her sudden isolation?
“Well, today I did nothing,” Liu said with a laugh. “I watch like, half of the guys’ event because I forgot they competed today, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! They already started.’ So I watched some of that. I watched some Netflix. That’s it. That’s all I’ve been doing. And I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow or anything. I haven’t had time to talk to my team yet.”
Liu is one of the few American women who can land the high-scoring triple axel; she fell on the 3 1/2-rotation jump in her short program. And she almost certainly will need to hit it cleanly – and everything else, for that matter – to push one of the heavily favored Russian women off the podium in Beijing.
“I can’t predict how we’re going to do,” Liu said. “I hope we all do really well, just how we want. But I have no idea.”
Liu’s selection to the Olympic team became something of a formality when 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who is too young to skate in Beijing, delivered a dazzling free skate Friday night. Levito joined Bell and Chen on the nationals podium, keeping such rivals as Lindsay Thorngren and Gracie Gold from having a claim to the third spot.
“It kind of gets me excited to hear them talking about the Olympics,” said Levito, whose aim is the 2026 Games in Milan. “I’m excited for them. Talking about the Olympics in general, and they’re so close – it’s a very exciting event.”
One that the 25-year-old Bell will get to experience for the first time.
She finally broke through at nationals in her ninth appearance, winning both the short program and free skate to earn her long-awaited Olympic trip. Bell became the oldest woman in 95 years to win the US title, and now gets to face the Russian teenagers who have been setting the figure skating world on fire.
“I think there’s a lot to say about experience,” said Bell, whose score of 216.25 points at nationals was far behind the world-record 272.71 set by Russia’s Kamila Valieva this season. “You can tap into experience and really use it to your advantage in a lot of situations, and I definitely have that.”
US Figure Skating has a similar situation in selecting the two pairs teams for Beijing, because the favored duo of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew before nationals when he tested positive for Covid-19. Knierim and Frazier likewise petitioned for a spot on the Olympic team and are expected to be chosen.
The pairs and ice dance teams will be selected once they conclude competition Saturday night. The three men headed to Beijing will be announced after their free skate Sunday, though Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou are basically locks after they turned in dazzling short programs earlier Saturday.
“It’s the Olympic year,” Zhou said. “There’s lots of pressure, everybody is nervous, but the energy is amazing.”