Nathan Chen wins sixth U.S. figure skating title, Olympic team decided

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Just like four years ago, Nathan Chen won the U.S. figure skating title ahead of the Olympics. He hopes the Winter Games go much different this time.

Chen fell twice in Sunday’s free skate (once in a choreographic sequence) but still easily earned his sixth national title — the second man to achieve the feat in the last 70 years. Like the others, it was a rout.

“Today went OK,” said Chen, who might not be able afford those errors against two-time gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu next month. “I made a couple of silly mistakes.”

He landed six quadruple jumps between two programs, totaled 328.01 points and prevailed by 25.53 over a surprise, 17-year-old Ilia Malinin.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Three U.S. men go to the Olympics, but Malinin was passed over for a spot by a selection committee. It instead chose Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, the third- and fourth-place finishers more than 10 points behind Malinin.

It’s the second consecutive time the U.S. men’s silver medalist was left off the Olympic team. In 2018, Ross Miner was a surprise podium finisher at nationals, but the committee went with Zhou and Adam Rippon based on their recent body of work.

The national championships are not an Olympic Trials. The committee chooses the Olympic team based on results dating to the January 2021 U.S. Championships. Zhou and Brown were second and third at last year’s nationals and the second- and third-ranked U.S. men this season going into nationals.

“All three of us up here, over the past few years, have really showed why we deserve this spot,” Chen said while sitting next to Zhou and Brown after the team was named.

Malinin missed last January’s nationals due to injury. He was the top skater on the junior circuit this autumn. His best total score during the international season was more than 14 points shy of the worst score for Brown and Zhou, though comparing scores is tricky, especially between senior and junior (which has one fewer scoring element in the free skate, but not enough to make up a 14-point difference).

Malinin said after landing four quads in Sunday’s clean free skate that he felt he deserved to be on the Olympic team, but said it was ultimately up to the committee. In the end, he was named to the team for March’s world championships over Brown, pending his ability to record a minimum score at an international event between now and then.

“He is certainly the future of U.S. figure skating,” said Chen, adding he thought Malinin is “miles ahead” of where Chen was at age 17 (when Chen won his first national title).

Zhou, who handed Chen his lone defeat in this Olympic cycle at Skate America three months ago, was just 2.61 points behind after Saturday’s short program. But he unraveled in a free skate with five quad attempts, botching landings and falling on his last jump, a triple Axel.

“I was so nervous that my body froze up on me,” he said.

Up until this season, it was thought that only Hanyu could rival Chen at the Beijing Games (Chen, fifth at the 2018 Olympics, and Hanyu have not gone head-to-head this season). Zhou, ranked second in the world this season behind Chen, was challenging that notion. But not on Sunday.

Brown, 27, fell on his lone quadruple jump attempt but was otherwise strong to stay in fourth place, just .38 behind Zhou. Brown has struggled learning a quad for most of the last decade. Had he performed a clean triple instead of falling on the quad Salchow, he would have moved ahead of Zhou.

Fortunately for Brown, it didn’t matter when it came to Olympic selection. He will become the first U.S. male singles skater to go eight years between two Olympic appearances, according to Olympedia.org.

“A lot, a lot of tears,” Brown said more than an hour after learning he made the team. “Slowly it’s sinking in.”

He persevered not only after missing the 2018 team, but through a challenging week. He didn’t arrive in Nashville until Friday after 33 hours of travel from Toronto including five canceled flights, an overnight in Atlanta and a rental car drive.

Then on Sunday morning, Brown’s coach Tracy Wilson tested positive for the coronavirus in a previously scheduled test per event protocols. Wilson said she was feeling fine. Brown tested negative Sunday morning.

The rest of the U.S. Olympic team was named earlier this weekend — Mariah BellKaren Chen and Alysa Liu, pairs’ teams Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier and Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc and ice dance couples Madison Chock and Evan BatesMadison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

The U.S. could win five medals with the best shots being Chen, either Chock and Bates or Hubbell and Donohue and in the team event behind favorite Russia.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misreported the point difference between Malinin and Zhou and Brown. It was more than 10 points, not more than 20.

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