Nathan Chen is in position after the Grand Prix Final short program to claim the biggest win for a U.S. skater since the Sochi Olympics.
The 18-year-old national champion leads by 1.81 points after totaling 103.32 in Thursday’s short in Nagoya, Japan.
Chen hit a quadruple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, a quad flip and a triple Axel — with some low-grade landings — in the biggest event this season before the Olympics.
Chen can become the first U.S. singles skater to win the Grand Prix Final since Alissa Czisny in 2010 after Friday’s free skate.
Chen’s top rival in Nagoya, Japanese world silver medalist Shoma Uno, fell after landing his last jump, a triple Axel, and sits second in his hometown.
Past U.S. champions Jason Brown and Adam Rippon, the only men in the six-skater field not to attempt a quad jump, are fourth and sixth, respectively.
The Grand Prix Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships. This season, it is the single biggest indicator of Olympic medal prospects.
It takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix series. However, this season’s men’s field is lacking.
The world’s other top men’s skaters — world gold and bronze medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Jin Boyang and two-time world champion Javier Fernandez — aren’t in Nagoya. Each dealt with illness or injury this fall but is expected to be fine for the Olympics, where they should join Chen and Uno as the medal favorites.
Chen broke out at last year’s Grand Prix Final in his first senior international season, topping the free skate to finish second overall behind Hanyu.
A month later, he became the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quads in one program.
Then in February, he beat Hanyu and Uno at the Four Continents Championships at the Olympic venue. He entered worlds with medal hopes but finished sixth.
He is the only undefeated male singles skater this season.
Later Thursday, the short dance went to form.
France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron tallied a personal-best 82.07. They lead Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir by .54 going into Saturday’s free dance.
U.S. couples are in third, fourth and fifth place, led by national champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.
Papadakis and Cizeron, the 2015 and 2016 World champions, lost all three head-to-heads with the 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir last season.
But this season, the French bettered the world record at both of their Grand Prix events going into their first head-to-head with Virtue and Moir this week.
The pairs short brought the surprise of the day.
Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the world champions and top-ranked skaters this season by 10 points, are in third place going into Saturday’s free skate.
That’s because Han fell on their side-by-side triple toe loops.
The leaders are Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, the world silver medalists, by a slim six tenths of a point over world bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia.
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Grand Prix Final Short Programs
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 103.32
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 101.51
3. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 99.22
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 89.02
5. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 87.77
6. Adam Rippon (USA) — 86.19
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 82.07
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 81.53
3. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 78.09
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 74.81
5. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 74.36
6. Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 74.24
1. Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 79.43
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 78.83
3. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 75.82
4. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 73.15
5. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 72.18
6. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 70.15