With brilliant skating by the top three, Nathan Chen still leaves no room at the top

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When a skater has been as dominant as Nathan Chen has for three seasons, it is not surprising many others look at him as untouchable.

That feeling is even shared by a skater like Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist and, like Chen, a 2018 Olympian.

“I have come to the realization that pretty much everyone – and also myself, inadvertently – puts whoever is at the top on a pedestal, and anyone not on that pedestal has no chance of winning,” Zhou said.

“Obviously, Nathan is an amazing skater. But I want to be the best I can and if that means I can win, that’s great.”

In Saturday’s short program at the U.S. Championships, when the top three finishers all skated brilliantly, Zhou came as close as he ever has to making room for himself at the top next to a Chen at the top of his game.

“I was aware of what he did,” said Chen, who skated more than an hour later. “Vincent is extremely talented, and I know he is going to throw it down every time he skates. I’m thrilled I was able to skate the way that I did.”

It was hard to remember another competition in which three men skated short programs as well as Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown. One can only imagine what the crowd reaction would have been had they not been compelled to compete in an empty Las Vegas arena out of COVID-19 safety concerns.

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Chen, seeking a fifth straight national title and a 12th straight win in individual live competitions, won with the most technically difficult short program he had done since 2018. He scored 113.92 with an opening quad lutz and a quad flip-triple toe combination in the rare bonus air of the program’s second half, but, ever the perfectionist, he expressed some disappointment with landings on some of the jumps in the Latin-themed program.

Zhou, whose life has been unsettled both of the last two seasons, did by far the best short program of his career, not only for hitting a quad lutz-triple toe (with two hands over his head on the lutz) and quad salchow but for the way he entered and executed his jumps, especially the series of running three-turns leading to the triple Axel. His success in showing himself as far more than a herky-jerky jumper brought 107.79 points.

And Brown, who had not competed since last February because of pandemic travel restrictions related to his training in Canada, gave a literally and figuratively breathtaking debut performance to the Nina Simone song, “Sinnerman,” a program his choreographer, Rohene Ward, had created with inspiration from the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey’s interpretation of that piece.

In perfect harmony with the music’s relentless, driving energy, his edge work producing a seamless dynamic flow, Brown painted a vivid physical tableau, no more so than in his movements while kneeling in the final few seconds. The shapes and angles of his body were stunning, especially given the need to spin and jump. Unsurprisingly, he got the highest component scores of the event, and, even without a quad, a total score of 100.92.

“This is not an easy program,” Brown said. “And it’s not easy doing it without an audience. I’m planning to keep it for two years, which speaks to the difficulty of the program and also the desire of doing it in front of a crowd, taking their energy as well.

“Rohene knows what I am capable of, and he can see what something can be before I can. He wants to push me as much as he can.”

Since finishing fifth in the 2018 Winter Olympics, where he won the free skate after a disastrous 17th in the short program, Chen has won 22 of his last 23 live competitive programs, with a third in the short at the 2018 French Grand Prix his only loss. The streak includes two world titles and two Grand Prix Final titles.

So it is no wonder his rivals are likely to put him on a pedestal.

It was also unsurprising that Chen expressed admiration for what Zhou and Chen had done in the most challenging circumstances any of them had experienced in their skating careers.

“The season has been just crazy,” Chen said. “Everything has been so unexpected. I’m really impressed with how everyone has been able to put their stuff together.”

Zhou, who grew up in Palo Alto, California, began dealing with the unexpected even before the pandemic began to hit North America full force last March, forcing the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships in Montreal.

“Just this morning, I was thinking that a year ago at this time I had almost quit skating,” Zhou said after his short program. “Then the pandemic happened, and the world was thrust into this constant state of not knowing what comes next.”

His plan to combine skating with his freshman year at Brown University in 2019 fell apart in the first semester because of issues in getting ice time without making a draining commute to a rink north of Boston. Zhou first stopped skating at all, then decided to leave school and move with his mother to Toronto to train with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol.

With barely two weeks of steady training before last year’s nationals, Zhou wisely limited his jumps to one quad in each program and finished a respectable fourth. When the 2020 worlds were cancelled, the Zhous immediately left Canada for Colorado, and his intentions to return to Canada were eventually stymied by the course of the pandemic.

With major international competitions cancelled or made domestic-only so far this season, Zhou found himself having more time to work on the refinements that would give his performance to Josh Groban’s version of “Starry, Starry Night” an ethereal feeling to complement the homage to another Vincent – the painter Van Gogh.

Working with Nichol via Zoom and both Josh Farris and Ben Agosto at his Colorado Springs rink, Zhou concentrated for two months on transitions and building momentum with the blade strokes so his center of mass would be constantly flowing and moving in the direction he wanted. That made it possible to execute with seeming effortlessness things like the running three turns into the triple Axel.

For Chen, who is exhausting the superlatives available to describe him, each competition becomes something like a game of “Can You Top This?” In Sunday’s free skate, he plans five quads for the first time at nationals since 2018.

“You know me: I like to always challenge myself and one-up myself after every competition,” Chen said. “But it will be a game-time decision.”

For a real showstopper, Chen might consider skating to his own recording. He has posted video of himself on the piano, working through the beginning of the minimalist Philip Glass music in his free skate. What would the base value be for that?

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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