Ice Network

Chen down but not out following rough outing

17-year-old still in medal contention; Brown unphased by lack of quads
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Nathan Chen's short program might not have been his best, but the reigning U.S. champion is still well within reach of the podium in Helsinki. -Getty Images

HELSINKI, Finland -- Nathan Chen felt out of sorts. He stressed over having slept badly Wednesday night. His skating boots were literally letting him down, no matter how much duct tape he used to hold them together. His warmup before Thursday's short program at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships saw him fall on one quadruple jump attempt and step out on the landing of another.

"I think the pressure got to me a little bit," he said.

Each issue made Chen a little more nervous about his world championships debut at the end of a season in which he had gone from a first-year senior with great promise to the cynosure of all eyes in the sport. He had become the U.S. champion, the Four Continents champion and the first to land five quads in a free skate.

Now he faced 20 minutes between the end of his warmup and his start time, which he spent thinking about making sure the quads were secure and worrying about how the 11th-hour struggles might affect his performance.

"That kind of got me a little shook up," he said.

It would be more than a little ironic, though, that the last and best thing Chen did in the warmup was a very good triple axel -- the jump that has remained his nemesis as he leaped to the top of his sport with a dazzling number and variety of quads.

"Triples are hard," Chen would say with a laugh after the short program. "Quads are really my thing."

Chen would hit both quads in the short program, extending his streak of successfully landing quads to 20 over four competitions. Then he fell on the triple axel, a mistake that cost him at least four points for that element and impacted his execution and scores for the footwork and spin that immediately followed.

Those mistakes left him sixth in the standings with 97.33 points, nearly 12 points behind short program winner Javier Fernández of Spain (109.05), world champion the past two years. But the talented Chen stands only 4.8 behind third-place (and three-time world champion) Patrick Chan of Canada, a gap Chen may try to close by trying an unprecedented six quads in Saturday's free skate.

"Why not, why not?" said his coach, Rafael Arutunian, who intimated that an additional jump would be a second lutz, the most difficult quad anyone ever has done.

"He's a young kid. He needs to learn to do that."

From start to finish Thursday, Chen's skating to music from the ballet Le Corsaire lacked the powerful attack that he had shown in every program beginning with his victorious, four-quad free skate at December's Grand Prix Final.

Two of his four non-jump elements in Helsinki were scored Level 3, as opposed to the Level 4's he received at Four Continents. That difference cost him more than a point.

"He was a little bit slow," Arutunian said.

Fernández' skating simply was peerless, both technically and artistically, on a day with one exceptional performance after another.

"I have high standards, and I had goosebumps during at least six skates," said Charlie White, the reigning Olympic ice dance champion who is doing web commentary for the ISU this week.

Fernández had two beautiful quads in a stunning performance to the skating standard "Malagueña." They were among the 15 quads given positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) in the short program, including two by runner-up Shoma Uno of Japan (104.86).

In the seven years since Evan Lysacek won the Olympics without a quad (only one was landed in the 2010 Olympic short program), how the men's jump revolution has completely reset the sport's parameters was illustrated by the performance of the second U.S. skater, Jason Brown.

Brown's flawless, captivating short program would improve his personal best by more than six points (to 93.10) but be good for only eighth place because it did not include a quad. Four of the seven men ahead of him landed two quads cleanly, a fifth got full credit for two and all seven did at least one with a positive GOE.

"Knowing you have the quads, that's a huge base value to bank on," Brown said. "But there is so much more than jumps that the sport has to offer, and I never want to lose that. I don't want to lose what makes me stand out."

Even an athlete as accomplished at all aspects of figure skating as Fernández must resist the temptation to add more quads to the three he does in the free skate after seeing Chen do five.

"Every year, we have more skaters (capable) to get on the podium, and there is only room for three," Fernández said. "Each year, it is getting more complicated.

"My strength is to relate to the audience with what I am doing," he continued. "If I put in more quads, I might lose that, and I'm going to have nothing else. I'd rather keep it balanced and good quality."

He succeeded in doing that wonderfully over two minutes and 50 seconds Thursday.

"What makes [Fernández] stand out is he does it all so well," Brown said.

No matter how well Chen had jumped, it would not have been good enough to beat Fernández, even if the Spaniard's quads were worth fewer points.

Looking at it any other way would be jumping to the wrong conclusion.