Twenty-eight seconds into his short program at Skate America in Las Vegas a week ago, Nathan Chen found himself with his rear end on the ice.
It wasn’t the first time Chen had fallen in a competition, of course. It actually had happened in his previous individual competition, the 2021 World Championships. And it was on the same opening short program jump, a quadruple lutz, putting him third going into a free skate he easily won to take a third straight world title.
Yet the fall at Skate America last week clearly affected him more. Chen botched his third jumping pass and wound up with his worst short program score since the 2018 Olympics. The desultory free skate (four clean quads notwithstanding) that followed left him third overall, with his lowest total score in 22 international events dating to autumn 2016 and also his first loss since those 2018 Olympics.
That is why Chen chose to go right back to the quad lutz rather than pick an easier jump to open Friday’s short program at Skate Canada in Vancouver.
“I definitely needed to get over that hurdle of the lutz,” Chen said.
It may not have been his best quad lutz ever, but it was clean and solid, and it released Chen to flow rather than struggle through the rest of the 2-minute, 50-second program, as had happened at Skate America. He followed Friday’s lutz with a strong triple axel and a quad toe-triple toe combination that earned his fourth highest score ever for that element.
With the jumps out of the way and the music switching to the pulsating “Nemesis,” Chen infused the final part of his program with the energy that had poured out of him when he skated to a longer version of that song in the last Olympic season.
He won the short program with 106.72 points, easily outdistancing a field in which Chen’s compatriot, Jason Brown, took second (94.0) with a scintillating performance to Nina Simone’s powerful “Sinnerman.” Without a quad, Brown finished almost 13 points behind Chen (two quads) in technical scores, a difference he could trim only slightly on components.
“There were points left on the table I am determined to grab as the season goes on,” Brown said. “So I’m pleased but hungry for more.”
Keegan Messing of Canada was third (93.28), and Makar Ignatov put up a personal best of 89.79 for fourth, piling up points with his strong quads but losing others with lackluster spins.
After his free skate at Skate America, Chen said he needed more time to reflect on what had gone wrong.
“At this point, all I can really try to do is keep moving forward, try to learn from this competition and go from there,” he said.
He didn’t have much time. And that turned out to be a good thing.
“I’m happy to have had an opportunity right off the bat to give myself another shot,” Chen said.
“From past experience, the first couple competitions I have had (every season) have never been perfect. That’s not to say I should not be. That’s on me. Every time I skate, I’m supposed to be skating well.”
In fact, even during the first two seasons of his unbeaten streak, Chen had made significant mistakes, large and small, in both his scheduled Grand Prix events. The difference at 2021 Skate America was for the first time in an individual event since the 2017 worlds, he had won neither the short program nor the free skate.
“I’m not really in a place where I’m like, ‘Things are definitely going to go downhill from here,’” Chen said of needing to rebuild confidence. “It’s a constant progression. There are going to be good days, there are going to be bad days.
“If I start thinking too far ahead or start worrying too much about what’s to come, I’m going to lose sight of what I currently have to do.”
The next thing is Saturday’s free skate. A strong performance would, for better or worse, put Chen right back in the position he held when the season began: solid favorite for the Olympic gold medal next February in Beijing.
That doesn’t mean Chen will let what happened in Vegas stay in Vegas.
“I still have to figure out what it is logistically that went wrong,” he said.
It may have been nothing that a good quadruple lutz couldn’t fix.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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