Ice Network

Majestic Chen captures second straight U.S. crown

Miner delivers stellar free skate, rises from sixth after short to win silver
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For the second straight year, Nathan Chen showed why he's the top skater in the United States. The reigning champion scooped up 210.78 points for his 'Mao's Last Dancer' free, and his competition score of 315.23 helped the 18-year-old earn a 40-point victory. -Jay Adeff

Nathan Chen ended his inexorable march to a second U.S. men's crown and first Olympic berth with a majestic, five-quad free skate Saturday that eclipsed the field by nearly 20 points and won the title by more than 40 points.

After that, things got interesting.

As follies, falls and under rotations piled up at San Jose's SAP Center, Chen's spot in PyeongChang was the only one of the three U.S. men's entries that was a sure thing.

Will U.S. Figure Skating's International Selection Committee send silver medalist Ross Miner, the 26-year-old who had the skate of his life on Saturday but has not won an international medal since 2015? Or does bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, the world junior champion and an up-and-coming star, go? What about Adam Rippon, who dropped from second after the short to fourth overall after popping two intended triple jumps into singles in his free skate?

For Chen, that's all academic. The cool, collected 18-year-old landed two quad flips -- one in combination with a triple toe -- plus two quad toes and a quad salchow while presenting Lori Nichol's intricate choreography to music from Mao's Last Dancer. His spins and steps were stellar, and his only major flaw, one that could kill his chances for gold if it happens in PyeongChang, was popping a triple axel into a single.

"I laid down a five-quad program, which I haven't been able to do all season," Chen said. "Obviously I made a mistake on the axel, which I have to address when I get back at home. Ultimately, I'm very happy and I really did my job here."

The other man who did his job Saturday was Miner, who had the performance of his life to a rousing Queen medley that opened with a superb quad salchow moved through two triple axels and built excitement through to its closing combination spin. His 185.60 points, when added to his sixth-place short program, won the crowd and leapfrogged him over more heralded skaters.

"It felt great to go out there and just stomp the landing and show a beautiful quad," Miner said. "I just knew after that, move on, next thing, check."

Miner has shown flashes of brilliance in his career, winning U.S. silver in 2013, but has not stood on a podium since the 2015 Rostelecom Cup. He was fifth in the U.S. the past two seasons and placed sixth at Skate America this season. In short, with the exception of this newly minted silver medal, he doesn't have any of the criteria set forth by the selection committee.

"I know it's not a fluke, that's what I do at home every day," he said. "And this was a big moment and I went out here and I have no regrets. I put out a clean competition. At the end of the day, I did my job and it's up to them to decide what they decide, but I think I deserve to be there."

Miner's coach, Peter Johansson, agreed.

"I don't know what they are going to do," said Johansson, who with Mark Mitchell trains Miner in the Boston area. "I think they should stick with one, two, three. This is a competition. I think (Ross) would be the sort of third man. Anyone could go, why not send him? Why would we have nationals if it's not going to be a competition? He was second, he earned a spot to go."

Zhou, fifth after falling on an under-rotated triple axel in his short, opened his Moulin Rouge! program with a spectacular quad lutz-triple lutz combination that earned a whopping 20.90 points. His other quads, though, were dicey, with three judged under rotated and one downgraded. He did land two triple axels to place third in the free skate with 184.81 points.

"I think I let my legs get away from me and be apart on the two quads in the second half," Zhou said. "I've done them many, many times clean training at home, and I know I'm capable of them. That doesn't change how proud I am of myself tonight for fighting all of the way through."

Like Miner, Zhou staked a verbal claim to a PyeongChang spot. As last season's U.S. silver medalist and world junior champion, he appears to have a strong case.

"I definitely feel ready. I've been training really well," Zhou said. "I know I deserve to go to Korea, but it's not up to me, it's up to the selection committee. I came here and I skated, the rest is not up to me."

Tammy Gambill, who trains the skater in nearby Riverside (Zhou also works with Tom Zakrajsek and Drew Meekins in Colorado Springs), thinks her skater is ready to make his mark in PyeongChang.

"He is our future and he can be competitive with the rest of the world," Gambill said. "Quads are the name of the game, and his second mark (program components) has really improved. We've worked really hard at getting it better and he proved that tonight with the passionate program he did."

Gambill added that the under rotations and downgrade that cost Zhou points on Saturday were not par for the course.

"Vincent does his quads clean every day in practice," she said. "He is perfectly capable of doing them clean."

Prior to the event, a confident Rippon had quipped that the only way he would be left off the PyeongChang team was "if other skaters' mothers are on the selection committee." In the free skate, though, he may have crumbled under the weight of his own wit.

Skating to music from Coldplay, Rippon fell on his opening quad lutz, but recovered well, landing a powerhouse triple flip-triple loop and two triple axels. His final three jumping passes, though, were lacking. The technical panel judged the second jump in his triple flip-triple toe under rotated, and he popped two intended triples into singles. He ended up fourth, more than five points out of third place.

"For what I did today, I take full responsibility," Rippon said. "On the quad lutz, I just kind of felt I was losing my right foot a little bit. I just let that feeling get the best of me at the end, it just kind of felt like it was gone."

The 2016 U.S. champion made a case that his two Grand Prix medals this season and qualification for the Grand Prix Final should sway the selection committee.

"I feel like I have better criteria than second or third here," he said. "My Grand Prix events are better than anyone's except Nathan. I had a bad U.S. championships (in San Jose), but I qualified for the Grand Prix Final."

Fortunately, Rippon's wit is still intact.

"I was not at worlds last year, because I had a broken foot," he said. "I skated like I still had one today."

Grant Hochstein, who announced earlier this season that this was his final U.S. championships, placed fourth in the short and fifth overall.

2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown, who sat third after the short, had even more trouble with his free skate than Rippon. The reigning U.S. bronze medalist and 2014 Olympian, seventh in the world last season, fell on a downgraded quad toe and failed to land a clean triple axel, among other mistakes. He placed sixth in the free and sixth overall with 253.68 points.

Although considered a top contender for PyeongChang coming into San Jose, Brown's free skate likely took him out of consideration. Dreams die hard, though.

"I know I have done everything I can to prove to the selection committee I am a worthy contender," Brown said. "I got three (Olympic) spots for the men's team with Nathan (and the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships). The whole season I put out strong performances, I know I had a few weird ones. My fingers are crossed."