Ice Network

Remarkable Chen jumps past field en route to gold

17-year-old smashes numerous records on way to capturing U.S. crown
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Nathan Chen earned his first U.S. gold medal in dominant fashion, becoming the first skater to land five quads in a free skate. The 17-year-old set U.S. scoring records across the board, including 212.08 points for his "Polovtsian Dances" free skate, which brought his event total to an astounding 318.47. -Jay Adeff

Nathan Chen rocketed to his first U.S. title at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sunday, smashing records in his wake.

How many?

For starters, his four-and-a-half minute free skate to Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" is the first ever to include five clean quadruple jumps -- lutz, flip, salchow and two toe loops -- and the first to feature four different quads. It earned 212.08 points, smashing the previous U.S. championships record by more than 24 points. His total score, 318.47 points, is more than 43 points over the standard set by Jason Brown in 2015; his winning margin, 55 points, is the most for any discipline ever at the U.S. championships.

There's more, but you get the picture.

"That was an amazing performance, I'm really happy with what I did technically, obviously," Chen said. "Component-wise, I kind of faltered a little bit; stuff happens when you're pushing the technical elements to the max. It's definitely something I'm looking forward to working on and improve for worlds."

All week, the buzz was about whether the 17-year-old Chen -- who hit quad flip and lutz in his short program Friday -- would try five quads in his free skate. He attempted five at Finlandia Trophy in early October but fell on two and stepped out of the landing of others. In Kansas City, his least consistent quad, the salchow, had about a 75 percent success rate in practice.

On Sunday, he reeled off his first four quads -- including a quad lutz-triple toe loop combination and quad toe loop done in combination with two double toes -- by the 90-second mark, and hit quad salchow about 2 minutes, 40 seconds into his program.

Chen also hit a strong triple axel, a jump he wasn't even attempting early this season, as well as a triple flip-triple toe combination and triple lutz. While the program was mostly about jumps, Chen displayed fine step sequences, improved since his work with Marina Zoueva and Massimo Scali following his silver-medal performance at the Grand Prix Final last month. Amazingly, considering his score, he left a few points on the table, gaining just Level 2 for his closing change-foot combination spin.

"[Five quads] is something I've been training towards, working towards," Chen said. "I didn't want to put the [quad salchow] out just yet, because it hasn't been so consistent yet in practice, but it's something I'm really proud of."

"He was working on it, that piece was ready," Chen's coach, Rafael Arutunian, said. "Final decision we made, basically, when we came here. He could allow himself to risk it here. He obviously was ahead of everybody."

Now that Chen has laid down the five-quad gauntlet, Arutunian expects other skaters -- like Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and China's world bronze medalist Boyang Jin, both of whom have tried three different quads -- to quickly follow suit.

"I think it is not far away when everybody will do all quads," he said. "We need to be ahead of that. Now we send a message out, and in a minute, everybody will see it and try to get the same. Our goal is to prepare for next season something else."

Asked what new things he was thinking of, Arutunian coyly said, "That's my job."

Vincent Zhou, the 16-year-old who has followed Chen up the ranks of U.S. skating and defeated him at the 2013 U.S. Championships, won silver after landing two quad salchows in a strong free skate to music from Casablanca that also included two triple axels. Zhou, too, had planned a quad lutz but tripled the jump, which cost him points when he repeated the jump late in the program, only to see it invalidated.

"I was confident going into my jumps," Zhou said. "Some little mishaps occurred, but I'm pleased how I did overall, not just the results but also practices. It hasn't been easy at all."

Zhou had a tough fall, failing to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final and withdrawing after the short program of Golden Spin of Zagreb last month when he aggravated an existing hip injury. He spent several weeks rehabbing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before returning to his training site in Riverside, California.

"At one point, I was really downcast, because I didn't think I would be able to recover," Zhou said. "I was just kind of dealing with it the whole season, and it wasn't getting better. But I'm fortunate to have such an amazing team to help me recover and grow, and get back to my old self and beyond."

"He does have to make sure he doesn't do too much, too soon," Zhou's coach, Tammy Gambill, said. "If he does his maintaining, his therapy and off-ice exercises, he'll be fine."

Jason Brown arrived in Kansas City after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right fibula following NHK Trophy in late November. He spent several weeks off the ice and only began training his jumps two weeks or so before the event. His triple axel was on and off in practices here.

But Brown persevered in his free skate, landing two superb triple axels, shining in his spins and delivering Rohene Ward's intricate choreography with aplomb. Doubling both jumps of a triple lutz-triple salchow combination cost him ground, but he gained the highest program component scores (PCS) of the event and won bronze with 254.23 points. 

"(I tried to) attack with the same integrity that I do when I'm fully trained and, at the same time, have kind of mental down times in the program where I can slow it down and refocus," Brown said. "Right now I'm not trained enough to go based off of feel. So [my coach] told me, 'Act like you're an engineer.' You have to just focus on each element, each part of the jump, and that's what I really try to do."

"I gave him the concept, 'Now you are an engineer,'" Kori Ade, who trains Brown in Monument, Colorado, said. "When you go do a jump, you engineer the jump. You don't feel the jump, you don't question the jump, you don't approach it from an emotional standpoint, you don't doubt it. You go out and engineer it the way a pitcher would a pitch."

Brown said that prior to his injury, he was landing quad toes and salchows in practices, and that if named to the U.S. Four Continents and world teams, he would work to intensify his practices as he grew stronger.

"The whole message Kori and I and Rohene had coming into this event is we know I am not going to be 100 percent, we know I'm fighting," Brown said. "But I'm not going to leave here taking a leap backwards because I pushed too hard at nationals and now I'm in pain. The goal was to leave here ready to take a leap forward, ready to start training more, ready to do more."

Brown got his wish: U.S. Figure Skating's international selection committee nominated him, along with Chen, to the team for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Zhou is slated to compete at the 2017 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Chinese Taipei next month, where he will be joined by 11th-place finisher Andrew Torgashev and newly crowned junior champion Alex Krasnozhon.

Grant Hochstein, who placed fourth in the free skate and fourth overall with a stirring free skate featuring a quad toe, two triple axels and a triple lutz-triple salchow combination, will join Chen and Brown at Four Continents.

Second after the short, Ross Miner opened his Queen free skate with a gorgeous quad salchow, but a wild pop on his next jump, a triple axel, effectively took him out of the running. A fall on a second triple axel didn't help matters, and he placed fifth with 240.34 points.