Nathan Chen fell time and again in practice at the U.S. Championships.
Come competition Thursday night, he was every bit the skater that went undefeated in the fall Grand Prix season, boosting Olympic gold-medal hopes.
“My mind was not in the right place [Wednesday],” Chen told media in San Jose. “Having a day to recover and recalculate definitely helped a lot.”
The 18-year-old phenom landed two quadruple jumps and scored 104.45 points, the second-highest short program tally in nationals history.
The highest? Chen’s score last year, when he became the first man to land seven quads between two programs in one competition.
Chen is almost certainly two days away from being named to his first Olympic team. Who will join him in PyeongChang?
Adam Rippon and Jason Brown, the 2016 and 2015 U.S. champions, are in second and third with 96.52 and 93.23 points, respectively.
The men’s free skate is Saturday, live on NBCSN and streaming on NBCOlympics.com from 8-11 p.m. ET.
The three-man Olympic team — not necessarily the top three at nationals — will be named Sunday morning, chosen by a committee looking at results from the past year.
Chen had one jumping error, stepping out of his triple Axel landing.
He struggled in practice and training recently, set back by illness, and changed a quad Lutz for an easier quad toe for Thursday’s skate.
“The circumstances going into this competition weren’t great,” he said on NBCSN. “I’ve struggled before with illness, with injury, and know that I can push through anything.”
Chen, Rippon and Brown were the top performing U.S. men in the fall Grand Prix season, in that order.
While Chen is known for his quads, neither Rippon nor Brown attempted a four-revolution jump Thursday. That difference is what makes Chen a gold-medal contender for PyeongChang and puts Rippon and Brown on the outside looking in.
However, Rippon and Brown have both trained quads, and Rippon has landed them clean in competition (though none this season).
Rippon, 28, was the cleanest skater Thursday night and is in position to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936. He missed the team in 2010 and 2014.
“I’m waiting for my day of reckoning,” Rippon said, noting that Saturday is exactly one year since he suffered a season-ending broken foot. “I’m here for that drama. This is the first step that I needed to take to have that amazing comeback that I felt like I was going to have.”
Brown, the only man in the field with Olympic experience, appeared to have trouble fully rotating his triple Axel but was given full credit. That allowed him to move ahead of fourth-place Grant Hochstein by 1.05 points.
Two other contenders who tried quads on Thursday struggled.
Vincent Zhou, the 2017 U.S. silver medalist and world junior champion, landed two quads, but placed fifth with 89.02 points, behind Grant Hochstein by 3.16.
That’s because one quad was under-rotated, and he fell on an under-rotated triple Axel. Still, Zhou improved over a disastrous Grand Prix season.
Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, conceded his Olympic hopes are dead after he scored 74.95 points for 12th place.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said on NBCSN. “After that, I knew my Olympic shot was over, could feel the tears rolling down my eyes.”
Aaron was flawed on all three of his jumping passes, including two quad attempts. Because of that, he didn’t have the required jumping combination, a crushing blow.
The 25-year-old was the third-highest-scoring American in the fall Grand Prix season.
Aaron is the only Skate America men’s winner not to make an Olympic team and one of three U.S. men’s champions in the last 55 years not to make an Olympics, assuming Chen and Rippon make this year’s team.
Aaron was third at the 2014 Nationals, when only two men could be picked for the Sochi Olympics (now-retired Jeremy Abbott and Brown).
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