DETROIT – What Nathan Chen did in Sunday afternoon’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships looked like otherworldly brilliance to everyone who saw it.
“Honestly, it’s incredible,” said Jason Brown, who had a chance to watch Chen because Brown had skated before him.
And yet Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, refused to get carried away after his skater easily became the first man since Johnny Weir in 2006 to win three straight men’s national titles.
“I am not completely satisfied,” Arutunian said Sunday. “There is so much more he can do.
“He didn’t do a quad Salchow. I still want him to try a quad loop. This was a program he has executed before. You always like to improve.”
Chen was not surprised by hearing Arutunian’s comments.
“Raf is always the overachiever,” Chen said. “That’s why I am with him. Of course, there are things I can improve on.”
Results: Men’s final
What Chen did Sunday, he did extraordinarily well. His first of four flawlessly executed – and seemingly effortless – quadruple jumps, a Lutz, was so high it may have hit the radar of air traffic controllers at Detroit Metro Airport.
“That’s normal,” Arutunian said of the height Chen reached on the jump. “He is older and stronger.”
His other quads were a flip and two toe loops, one in combination with a triple toe. Chen said he made a last-minute decision to do the second toe loop instead of the Salchow.
“I just felt that maybe now wasn’t the right time for it,” Chen said.
Twenty-five of the 36 Grade of Execution marks received on his four jumping passes with quads were the maximum of +5. No man in the world has done a clean free skate with that many quads this year.
When he wasn’t jumping or setting up jumps, Chen, 19, skated with a feeling for the music, “Land of All” by Woodkid, a dynamism of expression and body position and a fluidity of movement that have added a new dimension to his skating this season.
“He has taken skating to an entirely new world,” NBC commentator Weir said during the free skate telecast.
Chen’s component scores were stunning, even given the generous nature of marking at nationals. Chen got an overall perfect 10 for both performance and interpretation of the music, with just one of the nine individual marks in each category under 10. He also received some 10s for skating skills, transitions and composition.
“He has matured,” Arutunian said.
Chen tried one fewer quad than the history-making five he had landed cleanly in the previous two nationals. But for the third year in a row, Chen was in another universe from all the other men’s skaters in the United States.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ Brown said. “He is pushing the sport in ways that growing up, I could only dream of.”
Chen won this time by a 58.21-point margin over Vincent Zhou, with Brown another 11 points back in third. Chen won last year by 40.72 and two years ago by 55.44.
The difference this year – beyond that Grades of Execution now stretch from +/- 5 instead of +/- 3 – is Chen has done it while a freshman at Yale, carrying a load of sports and school that many, including Arutunian, worried might overwhelm him.
“I am so happy that he could handle both,” Arutunian said.
The coach nevertheless said again he hopes Chen can take more time away from Yale to train with him in California, to which Chen chuckled and replied, “of course.” Arutunian thought the two weeks they spent together over the holidays were a significant part of his success at this nationals, when Chen also had a sparkling performance in the short program.
Chen trains on his own in Connecticut, both on the Yale rink and another one nearby. He and Arutunian occasionally work out technical issues via FaceTime.
“He relied on experience and quality of technique to do well this time,” Arutunian said.
It hasn’t been that way all season for Chen. While winning two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final, his performances have been consistently flawed, far from what he likely will need to repeat as world champion in March.
Chen has said Yale professors have been very accommodating of his skating schedule, which forces him to miss classes for competitions.
“There are pros and cons (of being on his own as a skater, 3,000 miles from Arutunian),” Chen said. “No matter where I’m training, no matter who I’m training with, there will be good things and bad things about it. I’m so thankful Yale has given me the ice time for me to continue pursuing my dreams outside of school.
“Some competitions have been really good; some have been not so good. Ultimately, I feel I’m improving competition to competition. This competition gives me a lot of confidence going to the future.”
Chen noted that nationals came at a good time, with second-semester classes having started only 13 days ago and the course work yet to ramp up. Some of his previous competitions this season were in the middle of the semester, when the academic load was heavier.
“I definitely learned a lot more about handling my schedule last semester,” Chen said. “It’s reassuring to know I can handle the two.”
Chen knows there are times when something has to give. He is skipping February’s Four Continents Championships, even though they are taking place in Anaheim, Calif., just down the road from Arutunian’s training base in Irvine.
If Chen has to miss class time, it likely would be more valuable for him to do it for training time with his coach closer to worlds.
That is what Arutunian wants. He knows Chen can be even better than he was Sunday.
That would be something to see.
As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships, Four Continents and world 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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