Nathan Chen leads, but challenged in U.S. Figure Skating Championships short program

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Nathan Chen was put under a modicum of pressure at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and he delivered.

Chen nailed his most daunting short program jumping layout since 2018, landing a quadruple Lutz, a triple Axel and, in the second half, a quad flip-triple toe loop combination to top the standings in Las Vegas with 113.92 points.

“I’m really happy with the way this program went,” said Chen, though he shook his head afterward, noting his landings could have been better.

But Chen’s lead going into Sunday’s free skate is smaller than any of the last four years when he won the title. He is trying to become the first man to win five straight U.S. titles since Dick Button in the 1940s and ’50s.

The lead is significant but not insurmountable. It’s 6.13 points over childhood rival Vincent Zhou, who landed two quads in arguably the best short program of his career an hour before Chen skated at fan-less Orleans Arena.

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who received the highest artistic scores but lacked a quad, is in third.

Chen, undefeated globally since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, hasn’t been outscored by a countryman over a full competition since Adam Rippon did so at the 2016 Grand Prix France, when Chen was 17 years old.

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Zhou, sixth at the 2018 Olympics and bronze medalist at the last worlds in 2019, has a chance to beat Chen for the first time in 11 career head-to-heads on the senior level. Zhou did defeat Chen, who is 17 months older, in 2013 to become the youngest U.S. men’s junior champion in history.

“I don’t specifically think about beating people,” Zhou said Saturday. “I focus on myself.”

But Zhou said in October that he was trying to break the perception of being “just another kid who can do quads” and make a name for himself “instead of being talked about as Nathan Chen No. 2 or an underdog competitor or something like that.”

“We all just put whoever’s at the top on this pedestal and anybody not on that pedestal automatically just has no chance of winning in our minds,” Zhou said Saturday, including himself among those who fall into that mindset. “Anything can happen.”

A year ago, Zhou came into nationals on three weeks of training after failing to balance skating with freshman classes at Brown University. He considered quitting skating, but ultimately put academics on hold, moved to Toronto and began training in a new environment after four months off the ice.

“I could barely do a triple Axel,” Zhou, who since moved to Colorado, remembered Saturday. That made his fourth-place performance at 2020 Nationals — with a pair of landed quadruple jumps — “a huge personal victory.”

He placed second to Chen at October’s Skate America — a distant 24.05 points behind — with two injured ankles alleviated by Advil, he said. Zhou took two weeks off after that, then, on his first day back, threw out his back doing a single-rotation jump and missed two more weeks.

Zhou said on NBC after Saturday’s skate that he was at “the beginning of the summit push of a climb.” He could have been referencing all his work in the last year in pursuit of a first national title.

Or his whole career, which began with skating lessons at age 5 after attending a friend’s birthday party at a rink. Zhou said in October that he plans to switch his focus from skating to school after the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, where his parents lived before moving to the U.S. in the early 1990s.

“In the past it was as if he was skating to beat Nathan Chen,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said on the broadcast. “Now it feels like he’s skating for himself.”

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