The trouble with being Nathan Chen is, nearly all the time, you are being judged against your past brilliance.
Unless the redoubtable two-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is in the competition, that is.
But the two have met just twice since the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with Chen winning both, and pandemic-born uncertainty over the fate of the 2021 World Championships, currently scheduled for late March in Stockholm, and perhaps even next season’s events makes it is impossible to know when the next Chen-Hanyu showdown will take place.
Chen has simply been so extraordinary for so long and has dominated U.S. men’s skating so thoroughly since 2017 that it is getting too easy (and unfair) to take him for granted and forget he commandingly won a historic fifth straight U.S. title Sunday in Las Vegas because he did it with a less-than-jaw-dropping free skate.
A modest (by only his own standards) winning score of 322.28 still left Chen more than 30 points ahead of runner-up Vincent Zhou (291.38), a national medalist for the fourth time, this one after a one-year absence from the podium. Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion was third (276.92), his sixth medal at nationals.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m always just competing against myself,” Chen said. “The two guys I’m up here with are incredible skaters as well.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the fact everyone is capable of [winning], but I want to focus on what I’m capable of. Even if I’m competing against Yuzu, I’m still trying to do my own thing.”
FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results
How crazy is it that he cleanly landed four quadruple jumps, two to open combinations in the second half of the four-minute program, yet fell short of expectations because he nearly fell on the landing of a fifth? According to skatingscores.com, only three other skaters – Hanyu, Shoma Uno and Jin Boyang – have ever landed four or more clean quads in a free skate; of the 14 times that has happened, Chen has seven.
And, after all, Chen merely became the first to win five straight national titles since two-time Olympic champ Dick Button’s fifth of seven straight in 1950.
“It means the world,” Chen said of being in the historical company of Button. “Dick is a true skating icon. It feels incredible to be trying to chase something that someone like that has done.
“I am nowhere near the level he was at. It is just cool to be mentioned within his sort of realm of legendness.”
A day after the top three finishers all had skated virtuosic short programs, each struggled in the free skate. Zhou popped one of his four quad attempts and fell on another. Brown fell on his lone quad attempt and popped a triple Axel.
Ukrainian émigré Yaroslav Paniot, 23, turned heads and got third in the free skate with a strong, three-quad performance. Paniot, awaiting U.S. citizenship, was fourth overall (266.97) after getting 10th in his U.S. Championships debut a year ago.
“Everything went very smooth because I was finally in the best shape in my life,” said Paniot, a two-time Ukrainian champion who finished 30th in the 2018 Olympics for his native land. “Work, work, work, and you’ll get this result.”
In an effort to keep challenging himself, Chen was attempting a fifth free skate quad at nationals for the first time since 2018.
The fifth quad, a lutz, was his opening jump of the program. He stumbled on the landing and put both hands on the ice, which can constitute a fall if the judges think he would not have stayed upright without using his hands for support. They did not call it a fall, meaning Chen now has landed 129 jumps without a fall dating back to the 2018 Grand Prix Final.
Chen regrouped immediately to land a quad flip-triple toe loop combination and later hit a quad salchow, the high difficulty quad toe-Euler-triple flip combination and a quad toe-triple toe. He has long known how to prevent one mistake from ruining a program.
“Mistakes happen all the time in training, and most of us have been trained to just get up and continue,” Chen said.
“Initially, I was just trying to figure out what happened. It felt like everything was okay, so I was trying to figure out how could I prevent that from happening on the other jumps. As soon as I got myself settled, it was basically gone from my mind. Whenever a mistake happens in a program, I just generally snap right out of it.”
He never lost the connection to his music, by the minimalist Philip Glass, keeping its understated mood with less-is-more movements. One of the many remarkable things about Chen’s skating over the past five years has been his widely varied choice of music, from classical ballet to Elton John, from Stravinsky to Woodkid.
He has won five U.S. titles, two world titles and three Grand Prix Final titles. He has been at the forefront of the sport’s jump revolution. He has won 12 straight individual live competitions (and 23 of 24 programs in those events) since finishing fifth at the 2018 Olympics.
Even at less than perfection, even as he seeks his first individual Olympic medal, he is a generational skater.
“Of course, I would love to win the next Olympics, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s not like my legacy or who I am is ultimately diminished,” Chen said.
At age 21, competing largely against himself, he already has a singular place in skating history.
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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