Ice Network

Chen, Aaron go 1-2 in short at U.S. Int'l Classic

Americans display three quads combined; Canadian Firus places third
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Americans Nathan Chen and Max Aaron will enter the free skate in Salt Lake City with the two highest point totals in the field. -Melissa Majchrzak

SALT LAKE CITY - Max Aaron felt he could waste no time in upping the ante.

Nathan Chen knows he can take his time.

That's why Aaron chose his season-opening competition, the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, to try two quads in a short program for the first time at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex rink Thursday night.

"That's what you need to do to play with the big boys now … I mean, the young guys, like Nate," said Aaron, 25.

Chen, 18, became his sport's new quad king last season by trying up to six quads in free skate (twice landing a record five cleanly) after doing two quads in the short program. This ability enabled him to win both the U.S. and Four Continents Championships.

For his season debut, Chen limited his jump pyrotechnics to a single quad as he unveiled a striking new short program to the song, "Nemesis," by Benjamin Clementine.

"I have to make sure my body is healthy for the entire season," Chen said. "It's a long season."

Neither landed the quads flawlessly as Chen won the short program with 91.80 points to Aaron's 86.06. Liam Firus of Canada, a 2014 Olympian, was third with a mark of 83.46.

Chen's landing on a combination-opening quad flip was slightly out of whack, leading him to follow it with a double toe loop instead of a triple and winding up with a GOE of -1.2 for the element. Aaron put a hand down on the landing of a quad toe (GOE of -3.04) before hitting a solid quad salchow-triple toe combination.

"I've been practicing better than that, but it's great to test (two quads) out," Aaron said.

Aaron was the 2013 U.S. champion but missed the 2014 Olympics by one place and backslid to ninth at the U.S. championships in a 2016-17 season during which he likely underestimated how long it would take to recover from hernia surgery.

"I got my butt whipped all last season," he said.

So, as soon as nationals ended, he spent about three months training by himself, working on fundamentals -- including rediscovering the areas of skating he enjoyed most. He also spent hours studying the quad technique of past and present masters, including Evgeni Plushenko, Alexei Yagudin, Yuzuru Hanyu, Shoma Uno and Chen.

"I wound up taking pieces from two guys," Aaron said, declining to identify them as more than still-active competitors.

Aaron is impressed by the way Chen crosses his arms inside his body on the takeoff, which allows him to get a quarter-turn as he gets airborne.

"And he's so quick on the way up, he gets 2 ½ turns before reaching the top," Aaron said.

To each, this Olympic season has a different significance.

"I don't know if it's about getting redemption, but hopefully I will make that team," Aaron said. "I'm not here to hang out and wear a team jacket. I want to leave my mark."

Chen already has made one, but the Olympics are the place where it can become indelible.

"This," Chen said, "is the season I have looked forward to my whole life."

That he began it in his old hometown, Salt Lake City, on the rink where he began to skate, gave it a further emotional jolt.

"To be back where I started is indescribable," said Chen, who moved to California at age 12 to train with Rafael Arutunian. His parents, who were in the stands Friday, and four older siblings, have also moved away.

"I grew up in an Olympic city (Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Games), and knowing I'm en route to potentially make an Olympic team 16 years later is incredible."

Chen has spent some of his current homecoming visiting old coaches and dance teachers at Ballet West Academy, where he was a serious, and very talented, student for six-plus years. Balletic ideas and movement were at the nexus of his programs last year, when he debuted in senior international competition.

His new short program is a blend of staccato, almost robotic arm movements, piercing facial expressions and constant speed across the ice. While some of the arm movements at the end seemed extraneous, the overall feeling was one of unadorned, high intensity choreography. That he performed in a monochrome, open-collared red shirt and black pants only added to the minimalist impression.

And, the idea of less is more, at least in terms of quads, is the approach Chen is taking at this point in the season.

News and notes

Mirai Nagasu did a triple axel in her short program practice run-though Thursday in Salt Lake City, landing it on two feet. Then, she did what looked like a clean one near the end of the practice session.

The question -- as it has been since video of her working on the jump showed up on the internet this summer -- is when she will try one in a competition.

Maybe Friday's short program at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic?

"Absolutely," Nagasu said. "If I can land it in practice, why not go for it in competition."

Nagasu said she also plans to attempt one in Saturday's free skate and keep trying them this season, no matter what happens here.

"I really want to challenge myself," Nagasu said.

No U.S. woman has been credited with landing a triple axel since Kimmie Meissner in 2005. The only other U.S. woman to land the jump was Tonya Harding in 1991.