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Nathan Chen ushers in new era with record-breaking nationals short program

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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years and, as he said Friday night, help put the U.S. “back on the map” in men’s skating.

Chen, 17 and already an Olympic medal contender, tallied 106.39 points in the short program (video here), taking Jeremy Abbott‘s U.S. Championships record of 99.86 from 2014 off the books.

He carries a whopping 17.72-point lead into Sunday’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen, a past U.S. novice and junior champion, landed two quadruple jumps and continued his rise in a breakout senior season after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last month.

He said after his skate that he’s ready to handle the tag of Olympic medal contender and to go for the world title in Helsinki in March.

“I’m able to stack up against these top-level skaters,” said Chen, who beat the reigning Olympic and world champions in the Grand Prix Final free skate. “That’s something I’ve strived for my whole life. I don’t think it’s something I should necessarily be afraid of, something that I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Chen leads the U.S. Championships over a member of the old guard, Ross Miner, a 25-year-old who made three straight U.S. podiums from 2011-13 but none since.

Vincent Zhou, who turned 16 three months ago, was third, but within .82 of Miner. Full results are here.

“Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me,” said Zhou, who won the 2013 U.S. junior title and finished fifth at the 2016 World Junior Championships, taking two years off in between to recover from a torn meniscus in his right knee and focus on school. “When he was intermediate, I was just a little preliminary admiring him. Now it feels amazing to start closing the gap.”

The U.S. will send two men to the world championships in two months, selected after Sunday’s free skate, and they likely won’t be the usual names. Neither Chen nor Zhou has been to senior worlds, and Miner’s last appearance was 2013.

The 2016 U.S. champion, Adam Rippon, is not competing this week due to a season-ending broken foot. The 2015 U.S. champion, Jason Brown, is in fourth place, 8.62 behind third-place Zhou. Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell twice and tumbled to 12th place Friday.

“It just wasn’t a good day,” Aaron said. “It’s not me.”

There are no more pressure-filled world championships than those one year before the Olympics, where skaters earn Olympic entries for their countries.

“That would definitely be a massive step up that I haven’t prepared for in the fullest, but it would be an absolute honor if I were to be able to go,” Zhou said. “But, for now, I’m setting more of my sights on junior worlds.”

Hopes will mostly be riding with Chen, who has a shot to become the first U.S. men’s medalist at an Olympics or worlds since Evan Lysacek took the 2010 Olympic title.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said of the U.S. men. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday with the pairs free skate, free dance and women’s free skate, with coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

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Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen — 106.39
2. Ross Miner — 88.67
3. Vincent Zhou — 87.85
4. Jason Brown — 79.23
5. Grant Hochstein — 79.10

Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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USOC letter assures Olympians about South Korea security

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The U.S. Olympic Committee’s security chief sent a letter to potential Winter Olympians saying there are no indications that recent developments between the U.S. and North Korea have compromised security in South Korea.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was sent Friday, makes no suggestion that the U.S. is considering skipping the PyeongChang Winter Games for security reasons.

But Chief Security Officer Nicole Deal does write that provocations that have been volleyed between the United States and North Korea are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, and “should not be dismissed as insignificant nor feared as precursors of an inevitable conflict.”

The letter comes at the end of a week in which France’s sports minister suggested the country’s athletes would stay home if security could not be guaranteed.

The International Olympic Committee, trying to calm concerns, reiterated that in conversations with high-level officials in China and South Korea, none have expressed doubt about the Winter Games proceeding as scheduled, next February.

The USOC also sent out a public statement Friday from CEO Scott Blackmun.

“We will continue to work with our State Department and local organizers to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe,” he said.

The letter, sent to athletes, national governing bodies and other Olympic leaders in the United States, said the USOC’s security division is operating as “business as usual for our security planning and preparations.”

Deal writes that the USOC is reviewing crisis management plans that address a range of potential scenarios “to ensure our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

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