Nathan Chen was his typically superb self in his first top-level competition program in nine months, topping the Skate America short by a sizable 11.81 points in Las Vegas on Friday night.
Chen, undefeated since placing fifth at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, tallied 111.17 points on the strength of two quadruple jumps. His program is to a Latin piece, including music from “Desperado.”
“I’ve never done this style of program,” Chen said. “There’s still a lot of work and improvement to be done.
“I did the best that I can, considering that this is still very new to me.”
Vincent Zhou, an Olympic teammate and 2019 World bronze medalist, was second, followed by Canadian Keegan Messing.
Earlier Friday, U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell topped the women’s short program while wearing her free skate costume. Bell, a 24-year-old, 2018 Olympic alternate, seeks the biggest win of her career. More on the women’s short here.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, seeking a third straight Skate America title, led after the rhythm dance. The new team of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier topped a pairs’ field that included two other past national champion teams.
All of the free programs are on Saturday.
The Grand Prix season-opening competition usually boasts top skaters from around the world. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is restricted to Americans and international skaters who train in the U.S. and being held without ticketed spectators at Orleans Arena.
“As soon as you step on the ice, I think you notice the lack of audience,” Chen said. The skaters performed in front of cardboard cutouts.
Chen, on a break from Yale classes through the 2022 Beijing Olympics, can tie the record four straight Skate America titles currently shared by Michelle Kwan, Todd Eldredge and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
Chen hasn’t been outscored in full competition by a countryman in four years. He will likely not face his rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, until the world championships in March. Hanyu is sitting out the abbreviated Grand Prix Series.
Zhou, who has the ability to challenge Chen’s jumping repertoire, rebounded Friday with two quads after a rough morning practice, when he took a hard fall.
“I’ve been trying to find my groove, to find my center of balance, and it has felt a little off sometimes,” in Las Vegas, said Zhou, who in the last year has lived in Rhode Island, Toronto and now Colorado Springs. “I got off the ice after this morning’s practice, thoughts racing through my head and not really in the best state of my mind. I took a nap and slept it off and psyched myself up and came here, told myself I have one job to do, and I know I’m capable of doing it.”
Jason Brown, the other top U.S. male skater and favorite to make the 2022 Olympic team, was to compete at Skate Canada next week, but that event was canceled due to the pandemic. Brown trains in Toronto.
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