Underdogs have their day in men's shortMachida beats better-known countrymen; Brown, Rippon sit second, third
Tonight, the judges got it right.
Kori Ade, coach of Jason Brown, put it best: "It's refreshing to know the judging system worked in fairness for everybody who skates well as opposed to having a pecking order."
Competing in his first senior Grand Prix, the 18-year-old Brown sits second after a career-best short program, some 7.40 points behind Tatsuki Machida, least heralded of three Japanese men competing at 2013 Skate America. Adam Rippon, fifth in the U.S. last season, is third after hitting a new high with his take on Bizet's Carmen.
The pre-event favorites had off nights. Defending Skate America champion and former world silver medalist Takahiko Kozuka stepped out of both his quad toe and triple Lutz and failed to complete a combination. Former world champion Daisuke Takahashi had trouble with all three jump elements, including a fall on his quad toe. U.S. champion Max Aaron faltered on his usually reliable quad Salchow.
Machida, who won bronze at Skate America last season, set the standard with an East of Eden short that had it all: smooth quad toe-triple toe, sterling triple Axel and sublime steps and spins. He gained a new personal best of 91.18 points.
No matter what his result is here, Machida still thinks he is an underdog to grab one of Japan's three Olympic men's spots.
"I know there are many Japanese skaters with higher reputations than I have, and at the present point, I am probably in the furthest position [away] to be on the Olympic team," Machida said, thinking not only of Takahashi and Kozuka but Yuzuru Hanyu and Nobunari Oda.
"There are only three spots, and we will face a tough fight," the 23-year-old continued. "I have this determination; I want to be one of them and make the Olympic team. I can't say this is a consistent result so far, [but] if I am in this position constantly, I will probably earn more respect."
Machida, who trains under former Australian competitor Anthony Liu in California, hopes to further make his case with a winning free skate Saturday.
"I really want to compete the way I have been training and [gain] a new personal best there, too," he said.
Brown's short, choreographed by Rohene Ward to music from Prince, made up for its lack of a quad with inventive spins, strong speed and pure audience appeal. The two-time world junior medalist landed a solid triple Axel; triple flip-triple toe combination; and 'Tano triple Lutz, with one arm overhead. It all added up to 83.78 points.
"I'm always trying to compete like I train at home," Brown said. "When I realized I was doing that, I started opening up even more to the audience. This is my first year senior, and I want to take it all in, good and bad."
Rippon opened his Carmen short with a quad Lutz that was a shade under-rotated. The rest of his commanding program, choreographed by Cindy Stuart, was clean sailing, including a triple Axel and triple flip-triple toe combination, and he notched 80.26 points.
"I'm really glad I went for the quad Lutz," Rippon said. "I know that it was under, but it's my first big international (this season). I know I can hit a clean one in the free skate. I just didn't get as much pop as I was supposed to."
At age 23, Rippon has had his share of ups and downs. The two-time world junior champion placed sixth at the 2010 World Championships but missed making the U.S. world team two of the last three seasons. He thinks a move to California last season to train under Rafael Arutunian could be his turning point.
"I feel like I've been a dark horse," he said. "I was on the radar and then I dwindled off. When I came to California, I said that to Rafael. He said, 'We have a lot of work to do.' We still have a lot of work to do, but I feel like I'm on the right track."
Kozuka is fourth with 77.75 points, while Takahashi is fifth with 77.09.
For Aaron, it was a night to forget. Like Brown, the 21-year-old is competing at his first-ever Grand Prix event, and he admitted his inexperience may have shown.
"It was a bit of a lack of focus [on the quad Salchow], an adrenaline rush," he said. "I let myself amp up a little too high, and you can't do that. I was here to compete a clean program, and it didn't happen."