Ice Network

Chen in line to win second straight U.S. title

Rippon impresses to take second; artistic Brown vaults into third place
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Nathan Chen is in prime position to defend his U.S. title. Performing to Benjamin Clementine's "Nemesis," the 18-year-old gained 104.45 points in the segment -- the second-highest score ever recorded at a U.S. championships -- to lead the field by almost eight points. -Jay Adeff

A somewhat subdued and tentative Nathan Chen was still plenty good enough to take a sizable lead at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday night in San Jose, as he notched 104.45 points for a short program that included a quadruple flip-triple toe loop combination and quadruple toe loop.

But Chen yielded the SAP Center crowd to training partner Adam Rippon, who threw all caution to the wind to skate, quite probably, the short program of his life, earning 96.52 points when it was all said and done. Recovering quickly after a wonky triple axel, Jason Brown delivered a strong rendition of his Hamilton program, receiving the event's highest program components score in the process, and placed third with 93.23 points.

Chen's short to Benjamin Clementine's experimental pop tune "Nemesis" more than got the job done, but it didn't create the same kind of magic it had earlier in the season. The skater subbed in a quad toe for his planned quad lutz and stepped out of the landing of a triple axel. Not until his final two elements -- an angular and twisting step sequence, and fast combination spin -- did he truly cut loose.

"I did a little bit of a watered down program, no lutz, made a few mistakes here and there, but overall the performance was good," Chen, 18, said.

"Mostly it was just a percentage thing," he added. "Toe has a high percentage for me; flip is also relatively high up there. The lutz this whole week was not my forte. I figured those were the two safest jumps for me."

Chen has been up-and-down in practices in San Jose, and told reporters in the mixed zone a heavy cold has limited his training time.

"Basically, I'm 100-percent at this point, but the past two weeks I was really sick and it was a challenge to get to practices," Chen said, adding, "Ultimately, I did what I set out to do and focused on the goal."

If Chen was businesslike, Rippon was buoyant, captivating the crowd and judges with a sizzling rendition of his short to a pop medley including "Let Me Think About It" by Ida Corr vs. Fedde Le Grand.

The 28-year-old, who trains alongside Chen in Lakewood, California, skated with absolute freedom and abandon, though taking care to land strong jumps, including a triple flip-triple toe, triple axel, and triple lutz. His two final moves, a freewheeling step sequence and superb closing layback combination spin, gained nearly all +3's from the nine judges, while the single killjoy -- his combination spin -- gained a +2.

Ironically, an unsettled six-minute warm-up may have led Rippon to the memorable performance.

"Now that I'm older, I'm able to take that and analyze how I am feeling," he said. "So when I made a little mistake in the six-minute warm-up, I said, 'Girl, you tight. When you get out there, run in circles and bend your knees so you are not tight.' I took my analysis and what I needed to do, and then I just took one element at a time."

Last season, Rippon broke his foot just days before the 2017 U.S. Championships and spent much of the spring recovering. That experience, too, encouraged him to fire on all cylinders.

"I just feel very in the moment here and more than that, so grateful to have this opportunity," he said. "(Last year) I said, 'I am doing really well, I'm doing much better than I thought,' and then I finished a whole bottle of wine watching the men's short program. To be here now, I'm really grateful and you know what, I'm just going to go for everything."

Like Chen, Brown appeared a bit cautious in his short to "The Room Where It Happens," two-footing the landing of his opening triple axel before hitting a solid triple flip-triple toe. His spins and steps, entertaining though they were, didn't ignite the fire and excitement they can, and so often do.

"I was disappointed in my first element, to me that was unacceptable," Brown said. "I definitely think whenever something like that happens you want to get right back into it, but at the same time you are like, I can't miss anything else, you want to get every point you can, and that's the mindset that you bring after a mistake like that."

"He was a little tight in the beginning. As the program went on, he got into his knees and started to enjoy it a little bit more," said Rohene Ward, Brown's long-time choreographer. "He was a little more tentative; he could have used the energy (from Rippon) and taken it through the roof. It's okay, though, we'll save it for the long."

If the top three stay the same after the free skate, the job of U.S. Figure Skating's International Selection Committee may be quite easy. Chen is a shoo-in for the Olympic team, and Rippon and Brown have checked off more boxes in the committee's "body of work" criteria than other contenders.

Like Rippon, 27-year-old Grant Hochstein had the finest short program of his career, hitting a solid quad toe-triple toe and triple axel in a commanding performance to "This Is My Song" from Moulin Rouge!. He sits fourth with 92.18 points.

"This is the short program I've been waiting 20 years for, ever since (I was inspired by) watching Michelle Kwan in 1998," said Hochstein, who has announced this will be his final U.S. Championships.

World junior champion Vincent Zhou, the 17-year-old considered a threat for the Olympic team, hit a strong quad lutz-triple toe but did not help his cause when he under-rotated his quad flip and fell on an under-rotated triple axel. His 89.02 points puts him in fifth place heading into the free skate.