Nathan Chen

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U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix season midpoint

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Five figure skating storylines at the halfway point of the Grand Prix season …

1. Nathan Chen can win gold, but which men will join him on the U.S. Olympic team?

The 18-year-old wunderkind has the second-highest score of all men among the first three of six Grand Prix events, trailing only world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (scroll for full standings). Chen should qualify for December’s six-man Grand Prix Final with a top-three finish at Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, there’s a great chance for another U.S. man to join Chen at the Grand Prix Final. That’s because Jason Brown and Max Aaron finished second and third, respectively, in their first of two Grand Prix starts.

The Olympic team of three men will be announced after the U.S. Championships in January. A selection committee will choose the skaters based not only on nationals results, but also performances from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual competition outside of worlds, would be a huge resume booster. So big that a skater could finish outside the top three at nationals and be put on the Olympic team on the merit of that sort of international accomplishment.

Brown or Aaron could make his first Grand Prix Final with another podium finish this week (Brown in Japan) and next (Aaron in France).

Brown, who made the 2014 Olympic team at age 19 and finished ninth in Sochi, struggled with injuries the last two seasons and has not cleanly landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition. He makes up for it with artistic marks, which helped him take bronze at nationals (one month after a stress fracture in his right fibula) and seventh at worlds last season.

Aaron was not favored to make the Olympic team coming into this season. He was ninth at last year’s nationals — after being top four each of the previous four years. But Aaron had a personal-best free skate at Cup of China on Saturday, landing three quads, and is now firmly in the Olympic discussion.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who won the world junior title in March, fell three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut last week. He was still fourth and just 3.03 points behind Aaron.

Then there is Adam Rippon, who joined Chen at last year’s Grand Prix Final. Rippon was then unable to defend his title at nationals (broken foot). Rippon skates at his first Grand Prix in Japan this week, followed by Skate America two weeks later. He could make another Grand Prix Final with two podiums.

2. U.S. women still bunched

None of the top four U.S. women — vying for three Olympic spots — from last season distinguished themselves from the pack in their Grand Prix debuts.

U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell had the highest score of the group, good enough for sixth place at Rostelecom Cup and 15th overall so far this season. Ashley Wagner‘s bronze-medal effort at Skate Canada was actually 4.62 points shy of Bell’s total.

U.S. champion Karen Chen was seventh at Skate Canada, while Mirai Nagasu was ninth at Rostelecom Cup.

Russia and Japan each have four women who rank higher than the best American so far this season, which shows where the power lies in women’s skating.

Could any other Americans step up? Courtney Hicks, whose best nationals finish was fourth in 2013, nearly beat Wagner at Skate Canada in her only Grand Prix assignment.

Then there is Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who is slated for her first Grand Prix in two years next week in France. She will look to massively improve on a 13th-place finish in a lower-level event a month ago.

The highest-scoring U.S. woman this season has zero Grand Prix experience. That’s Bradie Tennell, who was fourth at a small event in Italy in September. Her Grand Prix debut at Skate America could shake things up.

3. For three U.S. couples, the dance resumes

There is little doubt who will fill the three U.S. Olympic spots in ice dance.

Maia Shibutani and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the top three couples at nationals, in some order, each of the last five years (excluding Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are not active).

Only once in that span have Hubbell and Donohue beaten the Shibtuanis or Chock and Bates in any competition. Which makes their scores in three separate Grand Prix events this fall so interesting.

Hubbell and Donohue have the highest U.S. score (by .19 over the Shibutanis) after each couple’s opening Grand Prix.

For the remainder of the Grand Prix series, the three U.S. couples are again separated. Hubbell and Donohue go in Japan this week, followed by Chock and Bates in France next week and then the Shibutanis at Skate America.

They’re all in line to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which would make a great nationals preview.

Meanwhile, the favorites for Olympic gold and silver remain French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who traded world records the last two weeks in separate competitions.

4. Top U.S. pairs team set for Grand Prix return

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim remain the favorites for the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot heading into their first Grand Prix since 2015 this week.

Though the Knierims missed most of last season due to her life-threatening abdominal condition, they came back to place 10th at worlds.

The U.S. champions in their absence, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were 20th at worlds and opened their Grand Prix season with their worst result (seventh at Skate Canada) in seven career starts.

5. Canada loses its grip on team event

Pressure is on Patrick Chan to find his form, or Canada may be beaten by Russia again in the Olympic team event.

Chan, the world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 who took a year off after silver in Sochi, bombed in the Skate Canada free skate and then pulled out of this week’s Grand Prix in Japan.

Canada is strong in the other disciplines — world champions in ice dance, world silver and bronze medalists in the women’s event and the 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs. But Chan has been its only reliable man in recent seasons.

This season, Chan ranks 20th in the world. Canada needs him.

Russia, meanwhile, may have finally found its successor to Yevgeny PlushenkoMikhail Kolyada was fourth at 2016 Worlds and then won Cup of China on Saturday.

Kolyada outscoring Chen in both programs of an Olympic team event could completely swing the standings in Russia’s favor.

Russia has the world’s best female skater in Yevgenia Medvedeva (plus the world junior champion), the world bronze medalists in pairs and a respectable ice dance couple in Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev that should place no worse than fourth in the team event.

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Grand Prix Season Top Scores
Men
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 301.10 (Skate Canada)
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 279.38 (Cup of China)
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 264.48 (Cup of China)
7. Jason Brown (USA) — 261.14 (Skate Canada)
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 259.69 (Cup of China)
9. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 256.66 (Cup of China)
10. Misha Ge (UZB) — 255.33 (Rostelecom Cup)

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.88 (Cup of China)
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.91 (Skate Canada)
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 212.52 (Cup of China)
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 206.82 (Cup of China)
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 206.07 (Cup of China)
9. Marin Honda (JPN) — 198.32 (Cup of China)
10. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 196.83 (Cup of China)
15. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
18. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 183.94 (Skate Canada)
19. Courtney Hicks (USA) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
20. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
24. Karen Chen (USA) — 170.40 (Skate Canada)

Ice Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 200.43 (Cup of China)
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86 (Skate Canada)
3. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 190.01 (Skate Canada)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 189.43 (Skate Canada)
5. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 184.50 (Cup of China)

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 231.07 (Cup of China)
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 222.22 (Skate Canada)
4. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 215.66 (Skate Canada)
5. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 214.37 (Skate Canada)
18. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.95 (Skate Canada)

Nathan Chen sees ‘pretty high chance’ of Olympic gold

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This time last year, Nathan Chen was just starting to realize he could make the Olympic team.

Now, the 18-year-old believes a gold medal is not just possible, but probable if he stays on track the next three-plus months.

Last season, Chen came back from major injury to become the youngest U.S. champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one program.

He beat reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue.

Though Chen was later sixth at the world championships, he chalked that up to faulty boots that required duct tape.

Sure enough, Chen opened this season in earnest by beating Hanyu again at the first event of the fall Grand Prix season.

In 2010, a 10-year-old Chen, dressed like a toy soldier, predicted on national TV that he would be at the Olympics in eight years.

That’s just part of the story of the youngest of five children to parents who emigrated from Beijing. Chen began skating at age 3 on a 2002 Olympic practice rink in Salt Lake City.

The Olympic reality is near.

Brands have noticed. Since the start of April, Chen signed with Coca-Cola, Nike, Bridgestone and Kellogg’s (plus another major company expected to be announced this week).

Chen sat down for an interview Monday while promoting Kellogg’s, which is putting him on Corn Flakes boxes.

OlympicTalk: What were you thinking when this happened last week?

Chen: First of all, I had no idea what was happening, actually, because I hadn’t realized I had won [his fall Grand Prix season opener in Russia]. Second, Raf [coach] Rafael Arutunian was like super, extra making a big deal. I was excited about that moment, but I wanted to keep it inside me. That’s who I am. When Raf, like, freaked out, I was like, oh God. It is a funny moment. I’m glad Raf was very happy about it.

OlympicTalk: Has Raf ever been that excited after a program?

Chen: No, not really. I think he was really excited I had a win in my first [Grand Prix] competition of the season. Plus, it was in Russia. He has a lot of attachments there [born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, coached in Armenia and Moscow].

OlympicTalk: Did you want to compete against Hanyu in the first Grand Prix?

Chen: Honestly, at that point, I had no choice [in determining if he was in the same Grand Prix with Hanyu]. In a way, no, not necessarily, just because it’s a big thing right at the start of the season. There’s definitely a lot of improvement that both of us can do. It kind of depends on how we took our offseason. But, at the same time, you have the opportunity to compete against someone who will be one of the top contenders. To see how you place against them early in the season gives you a good benchmark of where you are. That was a nice opportunity. To see that I could be on top that early in the season is very reassuring.

OlympicTalk: Where do you want your technical content, your jumps, to be come nationals, come the Olympics, in your free skate specifically?

Chen: I kind of set the benchmark for five quads, but at the same time I’ve been held back a bit in GOEs [lower-than-hoped grade-of-execution scores from judges marking the quality of his jumps]. That’s something that I can improve on a lot. That’s kind of where my mind is set — quality instead of quantity. Especially since at worlds, [quantity] didn’t really play out for me [trying six quads in the free skate with duct-taped boots and falling twice].

Heading into the Olympics, I’ll definitely focus a little bit more on quality of the jumps and all of the performance and all that just tying together for a more full-packaged skate. But, at the same time, five quads is still a lot of quads. It’s still a challenge.

OlympicTalk: If I had asked you a year ago, what are your chances of winning an Olympic gold medal, what would you have said?

Chen: Probably next to none, honestly. Even making the Olympic team would be a stretch if you asked me that a year and a half ago. Especially since I hadn’t gotten [quad] flip and [quad] Lutz, and all of these guys were already doing flip. I had no experience in senior. A lot has progressed.

OlympicTalk: Today, what are your chances of winning an Olympic gold medal?

Chen: I know for sure that I’m top five right now, at least top six. I think that, on any given day, we could all be standing on top of that podium. I think I have a pretty high chance of winning as long as I stick to my plan, stay healthy and focus on all the little details.

OlympicTalk: Do you want your programs at nationals in January to be exactly as they are for the Olympics in February, or will you still be ramping up?

Chen: It’s hard to say at this moment, just because I don’t know exactly how I will feel around nationals time. But nationals is definitely a good time to do a test run before the Games. It’ll be pretty close to the Games. There won’t be high stress.

OlympicTalk: You met Elvis Stojko recently.

Chen: The meeting was super, super brief. I wasn’t expecting that. I was training with [choreographer] Lori [Nichol in Toronto] right after Russia. I was sitting in the locker room. He popped in. I was like, oh wait, that’s Elvis. That’s cool.

OlympicTalk: Do you look at your sixth-place finish at worlds in April as more a product of the boot problems or being fatigued at the end of your first senior international season?

Chen: It’s largely about the boots. I wasn’t able to get the training time and the intensity that I needed heading to worlds. There’s only so much that I can rely on from the past few months of training.

I don’t think that [fatigue] really was much of a big deal. Also, the Games are in February, and I know that last February I was strong.

OlympicTalk: How long do you want to compete?

Chen: This is just the start of my career. I just became one of the medal contenders in seniors. To just pull off after this season, I haven’t been able to accomplish enough. I think that I would still love to continue for another four [years].

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Nathan Chen holds off Yuzuru Hanyu to win first Grand Prix

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U.S. champion Nathan Chen opened the Grand Prix season by beating Olympic gold-medal favorite Yuzuru Hanyu.

Chen, 18, held off Hanyu at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, totaling 293.79 points to win by 3.02 over the Japanese megastar.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva easily won the women’s title despite a rare fall in her free skate. Medvedeva is undefeated since 2015 Rostelecom Cup.

Full scores are here.

Chen landed four quadruple jumps in a strong but imperfect free skate for his first Grand Prix title in his second senior international season.

“I got a little tired halfway through the program and started faltering a little bit on the second quad toe – that was a big mistake,” Chen said, according to the International Skating Union .”I can’t let things like that happen in the future. But this is my first Grand Prix win, and I’m very happy with that.”

Hanyu outscored Chen in the free skate, but the American benefited from his 5.69-point lead from Friday’s short program.

Hanyu, the reigning Olympic and world champion, has never won his opening Grand Prix start in eight tries.

He did three quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate rather than the planned five, but did not fall as he did in the short program.

Chen has now outscored Hanyu in three of their last four head-to-head events dating to February. Hanyu got the better of Chen at the most important event — winning the world championships, where the American was sixth.

In the women’s event Saturday, Medvedeva fell on her very last jump, a double Axel, and appeared to smile and laugh it off. Victory — her 10th straight internationally dating back two years — was already assured by that point.

“It was a kind of moral weakness – I let out my joy too early,” Medvedeva said, according to the ISU. “But it was a useful mistake, and I will learn from it.”

The 17-year-old distanced Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy by 15.23 points despite breaking a streak of 14 straight programs without a fall.

Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi was third. That meant Russian Yelena Radionova (the only woman to beat Medvedeva in senior international competition) missed the podium for the first time in nine Grand Prix starts (not counting Grand Prix Finals).

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who went three-four at last season’s U.S. Championships, labored to sixth- and ninth-place finishes in Moscow. They’ll look to improve the rest of the fall and at January’s nationals, after which the three-woman Olympic team will be named.

Also Saturday, two-time world medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani won the ice dance with 189.24 points, sweeping both the short and free programs.

The siblings and U.S. champions have now won four straight Grand Prix titles (not counting the Grand Prix Final).

They won by 4.5 points over Russians Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev.

The world’s top two couples were not in the field — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Russia swept the pairs podium, led by world bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

The top pairs teams from the rest of the world — including world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong — were not in the field.

The Grand Prix season continues next weekend with Skate Canada, headlined by three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner and three-time world champion Patrick Chan.

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Rostelecom Cup
Men
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77
3. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06
11. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 206.09

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98
3. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17
6. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56
9. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25

Ice Dance
1. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24
2. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 179.35
7. Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons (USA) — 148.75

Pairs
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25
2. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 204.43
3. Kristina Astakhova/Aleksey Rogonov (RUS) — 199.11
7. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran (USA) — 170.53