Nathan Chen leads men’s short program, looking at three straight U.S. titles

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DETROIT – In a little less than an hour of elapsed time, in short programs that last a little less than three minutes, three U.S. men gave performances to stand the test of time.

They ran from extraordinary to exhilarating to exquisite.

Never had Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou skated a short program in competition better than each did Saturday afternoon in the U.S. Championships at Little Caesars Arena.

Chen’s quadruple jump pyrotechnics were enhanced by a heightened ability to grab an audience when he isn’t jumping. Brown’s quad-less program had a flow and refinement that stretched through the position of his fingers as the music stopped. Zhou looked like an utterly rejuvenated version of the skater who had dealt with a back injury and a crisis of confidence this season.

Chen’s 113.42 points gave him a commanding lead in his quest for a third straight U.S. title. Brown had 100.52, Zhou 100.25. The next finisher, Tomoki Hiwatashi, was 16 points behind Zhou.

The free skate is Sunday afternoon.

Results: Men’s short program

“This season, I can’t count the number of times I have gone through the feeling of I don’t know if I can continue,” Zhou said. “So to push through and overcome my biggest obstacle, which is myself, and to perform like that, I’m very grateful.”

The top three had all positive Grades of Execution, even though Zhou was called for an under-rotation on the quad Lutz that opened his quad-triple combination.

And Brown’s GOEs were exceptional. Of the 63, there were 32 of the maximum plus-5 and 26 of plus-four.

That is the way Brown and his new coaches, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, hope he can cut into the mathematical advantage the quad jumpers have.

Brown admitted to feeling a little shaky, which did not show in his skating.

“Sometimes, I will watch it [afterwards] and think, ‘Oh, it looked so much better than I felt,’” Brown said.

Chen, who hit a quad flip and a quad toe-triple toe, got 12.40 more points on his jumping passes than Brown did.

While he has utterly dominated U.S. men’s skating the past three seasons, Chen has made his position more complicated after beginning studies at Yale last fall.

“There were times when I was really struggling with them both, not sure how I was going to handle the two,” he said.

He has not lost all season. And Chen said his first semester grades included some A’s and Bs.

That’s extraordinary stuff.

MORE: Jason Brown planning quad attempt for free skate

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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