U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview: Nathan Chen leads clear top tier

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final Senior & Junior
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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Three men will be chosen by a committee to compete in Beijing. A look at the contenders (listed in order of best single total score this season) …

There is expected to be little drama in the men’s competition in Nashville. Nathan Chen is a clear favorite, albeit will not go into nationals riding an undefeated season for the first time since 2017.

The three Olympic spots are also largely, if not totally, spoken for.

No man has beaten any of a fully prepared Chen, Vincent Zhou or Jason Brown at nationals in this Olympic cycle. They rank first, second and ninth in the world this season by best score. No other American man is in the top 20, according to SkatingScores.com.

Nathan Chen
Three-time world champion
Five-time U.S. champion
2018 Olympics, fifth place

Bidding to join Todd Eldredge as the only men in the last 70 years to win six national titles. Took first defeat of this Olympic cycle at Skate America in October (to Zhou), but went out the next week and tallied the world’s best score this season by 11.62 points, landing six quadruple jumps between two programs. All of Chen’s national titles were won by at least a 30-point margin. Has said he will likely take a break from competition after this season (returning to Yale), so it could be his last nationals.

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Vincent Zhou
2019 World bronze medalist
Three-time U.S. silver medalist
2018 Olympics, sixth place

At Skate America, beat Chen for the first time since the 2013 U.S. Junior Championships, ending a 13-competition skid in their head-to-head. His winning score held as the second-best in the world this season, though Zhou struggled in his most recent program, a sixth-place free skate at NHK Trophy in November. It could also be his last nationals. Zhou is going back to Brown University in the fall. He said last season that 2022 was his “end game,” but last week clarified that anything beyond this year is to be determined.

Jason Brown
2015 U.S. champion
2014 Olympics, ninth place

Began the PyeongChang Olympic cycle with a national title in 2015 and ended it with a sixth-place finish at 2018 Nationals, missing that Olympic team. Since changed coaches to Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson and this season landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition for the first time. Brown is firmly the No. 3 American and likely to become the first U.S. male singles skater to go eight years between Olympic appearances, according to Olympedia.org.

Jimmy Ma
2021 U.S. Championships, sixth place

A sensation at nationals four years ago for his “Turn Down for What” short program before he ultimately landed in 11th place. Ma had his best nationals finish last season, and this year has the best score of any American man outside of the Big Three. That best score is still 13.23 points shy of Brown’s best, and 8.58 points shy of Brown’s worst this season. A significant gap. Note the fourth- and fifth-place finishers from last year’s nationals haven’t competed since September.

Ilia Malinin
World’s top-ranked junior skater

The 17-year-old son of Uzbek Olympic skaters won both of his Junior Grand Prix starts this season (making a 30-point jump from his first to his second). Last season, he was fifth at Skate America but missed senior nationals due to a fractured ankle (and then missed about three more weeks of training this season due to ankle problems). Has trained alongside Chen and landed three different types of quadruple jumps in competition.

Yaroslav Paniot
2021 U.S. Championships, fourth place

Finished 9.95 points behind Brown at last year’s nationals, beating him in the free skate. That’s the closest anybody from outside the top tier has come to a full-strength Chen, Zhou or Brown at nationals in this Olympic cycle (not counting Zhou’s under-prepared performance in 2020). Paniot, a 2018 Olympian for Ukraine who gained U.S. citizenship in December, competed twice this season, way back in August and September, before being sidelined two months for a groin injury that will limit his jump content at nationals. His total score from the one event he completed ranks him 10th among Americans this season, according to SkatingScores.com.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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