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.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results | TV Schedule

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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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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