Ice Network

Men's event to come down to 'jumpers vs. artists'

With Chen seemingly a lock, four men to battle it out for two Olympic spots
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In most people's eyes, four men are in the running for two Olympic spots in San Jose. -icenetwork

Let's just get this much out of the way: Nathan Chen will be headed to the Winter Olympics next month as one of the three men representing Team USA in PyeongChang. The reigning U.S. champion (and Skate America and Grand Prix Final winner, too) is just that good.

But one of the biggest questions hanging over the SAP Center this week is who, exactly, will occupy the other two men's spots. And the four most likely candidates skate with contrasting styles.

The competition can be termed "The Jumpers Versus the Artists."

Newcomer Vincent Zhou and 2013 U.S. title holder Max Aaron have a cadre of quadruple jumps in their respective armories, while 2015 national champ Jason Brown and 2016 gold medalist Adam Rippon are two of the most artistic skaters in the world.

So, who joins Chen in South Korea?

"I think the only argument (against me) is if other competitors' mothers are on the selection committee," Rippon quipped on his media call last week. "I've done all the work I've needed to do and proven time and time again that I'm one of the most consistent skaters in the world, that I'm a leader, that I'm ready for this, and I'm going to San Jose to do exactly what I do every day, which is my job."

While Rippon is brimming with confidence (and some quick-lipped humor) after a strong-as-steel Grand Prix season, he faces a familiar reality this week: Both Zhou and Aaron throw out quad-laden short and free programs, giving them a vastly higher technical score ceiling.

It's a discussion that has stayed relevant in men's skating over the last eight years, particularly after the 2014 Olympic free skate, which was marred by falls, most coming on quad attempts.

Do you skate conservative and clean, or do you go for it all and risk it for the reward?

Rippon has been attempting just a single quad lutz in his free skate this season, while Brown -- who has said he's worked tirelessly on his quads in practice since 2014 -- has all but abandoned the quad jump in competition. He did not attempt a single one at the Grand Prix Final last month.

Coming into the season, there were high hopes for Zhou, who won the silver at last year's U.S. championships and went on to capture the world junior championship. But the Grand Prix stage proved to be a bit too big for the 17-year-old, who could only muster fourth- and ninth-place finishes at his two assignments. Aaron, too, had an uneven fall season, medaling at one of his Grand Prix events (bronze at Cup of China) and placing seventh at his other (Internationaux de France).

Then you take into account the success of Rippon and Brown -- both of whom joined Chen in Nagoya, Japan, for the Grand Prix Final -- and things become more muddled.

Essentially, it could come down to who excels in San Jose. While Chen has built an international résumé that can't be argued with, the rest of the field needs near-perfect programs to make their mark and land on the podium -- quads or not.

"I know that Adam is really good with sound bites, but if there is one thing that is sure in this sport, it's that no one is going to give you anything," Charlie White said on this week's episode of Ice Talk, which previews the U.S. championships. "You have to go out and earn it."

White has another point of view: Where Rippon, Brown and Aaron are positioned in their career arcs compared to Zhou is significant.

"These spots that we're trying to figure out for the Olympics, Nathan has the chance to win an Olympic gold medal, but what are we trying to do with the other two guys?" White proposed. "What message are we looking to send to the world? Vincent is the future right now. He has to earn his way, but I hope they're going to look for the positives in his skating. He can do something that no one basically in the country, aside from Nathan, can do. We need that. He can go to the Olympics and make a huge splash in a way that Adam or Jason couldn't."

Rippon was arguably his knockout best at the 2016 World Championships in Boston, when he finished sixth, while Brown was fourth at worlds in 2015 and seventh last year. The sport has become one in which the jumpers -- names like Shoma Uno, Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernández, Boyang Jin and, of course, Chen -- have come to rule.

Because Chen is the only true Olympic medal contender the U.S. has, the men's event in San Jose might give us a classic qualification process: The top skaters go. Whoever is 1-2-3 on the podium have their tickets to South Korea punched.

"On paper, I think I've really proven myself," Brown told reporters last week. "I've filled a lot of those bubbles, if you look at the criteria. I've made a name for myself at U.S. Figure Skating and in the world standing. But I also believe that, as an athlete, you can't rely on what you've done in the past. It's always about the next event. That's what I can control. I don't want to look at (the past) as a pillow. ... But my mentality is all about these championships. I have to do my best in this moment."

How many quads will Nathan Chen do this week? How many points will he win by? We don't know the exact answers to those questions, but we can give them our best guess and probably come pretty close.

The more intriguing storylines are: Who will earn those two other Olympic spots, and what kinds of skaters will fill them?

High-flying aerial feats. Skating skills to die for. Buckle up, folks -- whatever the outcome, it's going to be a true thrill ride.