Nathan Chen won his sixth straight national figure skating championship Sunday, a feat unmatched since Dick Button won his sixth of seven straight in 1951.
Ilia Malinin finished second, but he upstaged Chen and everyone else in the competition, both in the short program and the free skate.
That Malinin’s two stunning performances still did not earn the 17-year-old a place on the U.S. team for next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing was not really surprising, given selection criteria that broadly favored results in senior level events the past two seasons.
In a decision complicated by the free skate performances in Nashville, the U.S. Figure Skating selection committee gave the three men’s singles spots to Chen, Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.
“I think all three of us have really shown over the past two years why we deserve this spot,” Chen said.
Chen, 22, and Zhou, 21, finished fifth and sixth, respectively, at the 2018 Olympics. Brown, 27, was ninth in 2014 but did not make the team in 2018. They were 1-2-3 at last year’s nationals, and each has been on senior international podiums this season.
Malinin competed as a junior internationally early this season, had a mediocre performance at his only senior international event and missed last season’s U.S. Championships with an injury.
Because the selection process includes a group of numerical criteria but also a large amount of subjectivity, controversy was guaranteed after Sunday’s competitive denouement no matter what the committee decided.
That debate can rage in the background (and it undoubtedly will, probably for years).
The future – and Sunday’s foreground – should still belong to Malinin, who was making his senior national debut. He had needed to compete at a minor event in Austria two months ago just to achieve (and not by much) the technical minimum to qualify for the Olympics if he had made the team. No wonder Malinin expressed surprise over how well he skated.
“It’s amazing to see how he has progressed,” Chen said.
Malinin became the men’s first alternate for the Olympics, a position that gains significance given the chance Covid could sideline one of the other three. He was given a spot on the U.S. team at the World Championships in March – along with Chen and Zhou – pending his getting the technical minimum for worlds, which is higher than that for the Olympics.
“I’ve been in the sport for 20 years, and I’ve been through what seems like every possible scenario,” Brown said. “I’ve been the young kid that makes it, the person left off the team.
“I so feel for him (Malinin). To watch him grow and just shine – he was unbelievable tonight. There’s nothing I can say that can encompass how he might be feeling at this moment. What I can say is he is beyond out of this world, and U.S. figure skating is so lucky to have such a bright future with Ilia.”
Zhou was so impressed with Malinin during a practice session that he asked to get a picture with him.
“I asked his dad, `Can I get a photo of the future men’s U.S. champion?’” Zhou said. “Ilia was, indeed, nothing short of spectacular.”
Malinin was the only one of the 13 men who completed the free skate to perform two clean programs, taking third in the short with two quadruple jumps and second in the free with four more quads. They included a quad toe-half loop-triple salchow combination in the free skate bonus period.
In his excitement soon after finishing, Malinin told NBC’s Andrea Joyce, “I definitely think I should deserve to go” to Beijing. In the media mixed zone a few minutes later, he was less definitive.
“I wasn’t expecting to skate this good and especially to place second,” Malinin said. “I was surprised at how easily everything went together. I think it gave me a better chance for them to send me to the Olympics, but it’s ultimately down to the committee.”
Malinin’s skating recalled Chen’s breakthrough performance at age 16 in the 2016 nationals, when he became the first U.S. man to land four clean quads in a free and first to land two fully credited quads (one clean) in a short.
“Ilia is miles ahead of where I was in 2016 based on quality and consistency,” Chen said. “He definitely has an amazing future ahead of him.”
Chen has been light-years ahead of the competition at nationals since 2017. That was the case Sunday even with two falls, one on a quad flip and one – a near face plant – while doing footwork late in a program to the Elton John medley program he had used two seasons ago and returned to in November.
“A couple silly mistakes,” Chen said.
With 328.01 points to Malinin’s 302.48, Chen’s winning margin was the smallest of his six titles. The three-time world champion landed four clean quads but the two falls contributed to making Chen’s performance scores low by his recent standards at nationals.
He would not commit to using the same free skate again at the Olympics, where Chen and two-time reigning champion Yuzuru Hanyu are the top two gold medal contenders.
Zhou totaled 290.16, a whisker ahead of Brown (289.78), whose coach, Tracy Wilson, tested positive for Covid Sunday morning. Brown, who tested negative, found out what had happened to Wilson just before his morning warmup.
Zhou’s free skate was a hot mess, with a fall and four botched jumping passes. He has had two poor free skates since ending Chen’s three-season winning streak at Skate America in October.
“I was so nervous my body just froze up on me,” Zhou said.
Brown overcame a fall on his opening jump, a quad salchow, and went on to maximize grade of execution points on everything but a wobbly final spin. He wound up in tears on the ice, exhausted and overcome by the four years of work he had done since the disappointment of failing to make the 2018 Olympic team.
Because he never has been able to land a clean quad, Brown has played with a short deck over the past seven seasons, hoping to overcome his ever-growing deficit in technical points with his command of skating’s fine points – gliding, expressiveness, performance skills.
“It has been a really tough go to get here, and I don’t mean just the past 72 hours,” Brown said before the team decision came down Sunday, referring to a travel odyssey from Toronto that lasted 33 hours and two days and then having to skate without Wilson nearby.
“There are aspects of skating I wish I had mastered earlier in my career. I think I gave it my all. I have no regrets, and I’m really proud of that.”
And, a couple hours later, proud to be an Olympian again.
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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