Nathan Chen, in landing four clean quadruple jumps in Sunday’s free skate, won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for a fifth consecutive year. He became the first American man to accomplish the feat since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button more than 60 years ago.
Chen, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, prevailed by a giant 30.9 points over Vincent Zhou.
“It’s incredible, something that I’ll truly cherish,” Chen said on NBC. “Dick has been an inspiration for all skaters since he won his seven in a row. It’s incredible to be able to try to follow in his footsteps.”
Jason Brown was third as the standings were unchanged from after Saturday’s short program at fan-less Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Chen totaled 322.28 points, down from the last two years after he erred on his first jumping pass Sunday. Chen stepped out of the landing of a quad Lutz and put two hands on the ice. It was his first negatively graded jumping pass at nationals since 2018.
“I was a little timid today,” said Chen, who attempted five quads in a program at nationals for the first time since 2018. “I didn’t really attack all my elements, just focused on trying to conserve energy. That’s not the right approach.”
While still a runaway, it was the smallest margin of victory of Chen’s five national titles. The other four margins (58.21, 55.44, 40.72 and 37.29) were the largest for any discipline since the 6.0 scoring system was thrown out in 2006.
Zhou and Brown also had jumping errors Sunday.
Zhou, who was within striking distance after the short program should Chen make significant errors, fell on a quad Lutz and singled a planned quad flip.
“I kind of had a moment of telling myself check yourself before you wreck yourself, but then I checked myself for too long,” Zhou, who landed two quads, said of the failed Lutz. “I’m not happy with myself for throwing away my first 300-point opportunity.”
Brown fell on his opening quad toe loop and singled a planned triple Axel. He has yet to land a clean, fully rotated quad in competition.
“Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how the event went, a bit disappointed in today,” said Brown, who skated a clean short program with a higher artistic score than Chen and Zhou.
Chen, Zhou and Brown make up the U.S. team for March’s world championships in Stockholm, which are still on to cap an international season significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
"The future will come so right now I'm just going to be happy in this moment."@nathanwchen on where he sees himself going as the Olympic Winter Games are a little more than a year away. #ToyotaUSChamps21 pic.twitter.com/ZOocUUIG3w
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) January 17, 2021
At worlds, Chen is expected to face two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan for the first time since December 2019.
Chen outscored Hanyu in their last five head-to-head programs and can consolidate 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic favorite status with a third consecutive world title.
Chen entered the 2018 Olympics as arguably the favorite, then was shockingly 17th in the short program to take him out of the medal picture.
“I went to the Olympics, didn’t do well and had my worst fears sort of materialize,” Chen said. “If [a gold medal in 2022] doesn’t happen, it’s not like my legacy or who I am is ultimately diminished. … Whether or not I get that title at the Olympics is not going to define me.”
Zhou and Brown are both in the world championships medal mix, too.
Zhou, who considered quitting skating a year ago after failing to balance training with freshman classes at Brown University, joined Chen and Hanyu on the podium at the most recent world championships in 2019.
Brown, a 2014 Olympian, has outscored Chen artistically. Though Brown has never landed a clean, fully rotated quadruple jump in competition, he ranked fourth in the world last season by best total scores.
Since Button won seven consecutive national titles in the 1940s and ’50s, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and others won all four U.S. titles in an Olympic cycle, but Chen surpassed their streaks while bridging quadrennials.
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