Common sense says Nathan Chen could skip this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships and still be named to the Olympic team.
In the last year, Chen became the youngest U.S. champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one free skate, beat the Olympic favorite at the Olympic venue and was the only man to go undefeated in the fall Grand Prix series.
Chen goes into nationals in San Jose, Calif., — where the Olympic team will be decided — as the biggest favorite among the four disciplines.
“There is additional pressure, but it’s reassuring again, and I’ve said this before, I’m happy with the way that things have gone,” Chen said last week. “I’m happy that I’m in this position. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time.”
Chen first predicted on national TV at the 2010 U.S. Championships — where he won the novice division at age 10 — that he eyed the 2018 Olympics.
In January 2014, still too young for the Winter Games, he won the junior division at nationals at TD Garden and stuck around to watch the women’s free skate from the second deck.
Chen performs in the short program Thursday and the free skate Saturday. He will almost surely hear his name called in an Olympic team announcement Sunday morning.
The intrigue? Which other two men will join him in PyeongChang.
It’s not as simple as the top three finishers from nationals.
A committee chooses the Olympic team based on results from events in the past year. This is why Chen is already considered a lock.
Past U.S. champions Adam Rippon, Max Aaron and Jason Brown are the next highest-ranked U.S. men this season.
The 17-year-old Vincent Zhou took second to Chen at last year’s nationals, then won the world junior title, but struggled this fall.
A closer look at the five primary contenders for three Olympic spots:
2017 U.S. champion
Undefeated in 2017-18 season
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st
Chen’s real measure is against the top skaters from Europe and Asia, but for now let’s focus on domestic dominance. His best total score this season is 27.34 points higher than the next U.S. man. His worst total score this season is still higher than any other American’s personal best.
Chen plans two quads in his short program and five in his free skate, a total that only one other skater could possibly attempt to match (the struggling Zhou). He certainly doesn’t need that many to repeat as U.S. champion.
There is a little bit of concern. Chen fell in his free skate at his last two events. At Skate America in November, Chen dealt with replacing a skate blade between his short and free, plus other “very private” issues, his coach reportedly said.
Chen won the Grand Prix Final in early December and then missed “a little bit” of training while feeling “a little bit under the weather.”
2016 U.S. champion
Two-time Grand Prix Final qualifier
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd
“Besides Nathan Chen, I have the best criteria,” Rippon said last week. The 28-year-old claimed that because he was the only American other than Chen to qualify outright for the Grand Prix Final, where he also finished second to Chen among Americans (and fifth overall of six skaters).
Rippon missed three other key events on the committee’s criteria — last season’s nationals, Olympic test event and world championships — because of a broken foot. Doesn’t matter, he says.
“My mentality going into San Jose is that this is just going to be my coronation,” Rippon said. “The only argument is if other competitors’ mothers are on the selection committee.”
Rippon is a sentimental favorite. He was fifth at the 2010 Nationals (as two-time reigning world junior champion) and eighth in 2014 (as the most consistent U.S. man in the fall season). He considered quitting after missing in Sochi.
“I was fat then,” he said.
Two years later, Rippon won his first national title. Now, he’s poised to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936.
2015 U.S. champion
Ninth at Sochi Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th
Brown was the third U.S. man at the Grand Prix Final with Chen and Rippon, finishing last of six skaters at the event. He’s also the only man in this week’s field with Olympic experience. He made the podium at his last three U.S. Championships and in every one of his five Grand Prix seasons.
“I’ve really proven myself,” Brown said. “You look at the criteria, I really do fill a lot of those bubbles.”
What Brown does not have is a consistent quadruple jump. He’s planning a quad toe loop, but has never landed a clean, fully rotated quad in competition. The other Olympic team contenders can all land a quad (though Rippon hasn’t done so clean since November 2016).
Brown makes up for that with strong component (artistic) marks. Which brings to mind his show-stopping “Riverdance” free skate from the 2014 U.S. Championships. This year, Brown received buzz for his short program music from “Hamilton.”
2017 U.S. silver medalist
2017 World junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th
Zhou was very arguably the No. 2 U.S. man coming into the season. Now, he’s an underdog to make the three-man Olympic team.
The 17-year-old fell seven times in his two Grand Prix events in November. He called his skating “dismal” and later said he was dealing with a shin injury that since cleared up. Zhou also dislocated a shoulder in practice two weeks ago.
Zhou is not relenting on ambition despite those setbacks. He plans five quads in his free skate Saturday, putting his fate in his own skates.
“I know that I’m able to do all the quads that everyone else can do,” he said. “I would say my potential technical content would be on par with [Chen], but as for the artistry, presentation side, I have a long way to go.”
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd
Aaron was the reigning U.S. champion going into the Sochi Olympic season. He placed third at the 2014 Nationals but was left off the two-man Olympic team.
He’s more off the radar this year — after plummeting to ninth at last season’s nationals — but joined the Olympic team conversation with a personal-best free skate at a Grand Prix in China in November. In his last three free skates, Aaron has twice landed three quads.
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