‘Desperado’ Nathan Chen leads after Skate America short program

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Nathan Chen was his typically superb self in his first top-level competition program in nine months, topping the Skate America short by a sizable 11.81 points in Las Vegas on Friday night.

Chen, undefeated since placing fifth at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, tallied 111.17 points on the strength of two quadruple jumps. His program is to a Latin piece, including music from “Desperado.”

“I’ve never done this style of program,” Chen said. “There’s still a lot of work and improvement to be done.

“I did the best that I can, considering that this is still very new to me.”

Vincent Zhou, an Olympic teammate and 2019 World bronze medalist, was second, followed by Canadian Keegan Messing.

Chen goes for a record-tying fourth consecutive Skate America title in Saturday’s free skate.

Earlier Friday, U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell topped the women’s short program while wearing her free skate costume. Bell, a 24-year-old, 2018 Olympic alternate, seeks the biggest win of her career. More on the women’s short here.

SKATE AMERICA: TV, Live Stream Schedule | Results

The Grand Prix season-opening competition usually boasts top skaters from around the world. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is restricted to Americans and international skaters who train in the U.S. and being held without ticketed spectators at Orleans Arena.

“As soon as you step on the ice, I think you notice the lack of audience,” Chen said. The skaters performed in front of cardboard cutouts.

Chen, on a break from Yale classes through the 2022 Beijing Olympics, can tie the record four straight Skate America titles currently shared by Michelle Kwan, Todd Eldredge and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Chen hasn’t been outscored in full competition by a countryman in four years. He will likely not face his rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, until the world championships in March. Hanyu is sitting out the abbreviated Grand Prix Series.

Zhou, who has the ability to challenge Chen’s jumping repertoire, rebounded Friday with two quads after a rough morning practice, when he took a hard fall.

“I’ve been trying to find my groove, to find my center of balance, and it has felt a little off sometimes,” in Las Vegas, said Zhou, who in the last year has lived in Rhode Island, Toronto and now Colorado Springs. “I got off the ice after this morning’s practice, thoughts racing through my head and not really in the best state of my mind. I took a nap and slept it off and psyched myself up and came here, told myself I have one job to do, and I know I’m capable of doing it.”

Jason Brown, the other top U.S. male skater and favorite to make the 2022 Olympic team, was to compete at Skate Canada next week, but that event was canceled due to the pandemic. Brown trains in Toronto.

The pairs’ short program and rhythm dance were scheduled for later Friday.

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Mariah Bell tops Skate America short program, eyes biggest win of career

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Wearing her free skate costume, Mariah Bell topped the short program at a Skate America like no other with a clean performance in front of no ticketed spectators at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Friday.

Bell, 24, landed a double Axel, triple flip-triple toe loop combination and a triple Lutz for 76.48 points in front of cardboard cutouts of fans.

“I kind of had to go back to revert to what it’s like to practice,” Bell, whose short program dress didn’t fit well, said on NBCSN. “We could hear clapping and stuff, but you look up, and the stands are completely empty.”

She edged 2018 U.S. Olympian and national champion Bradie Tennell by 3.19 points. Tennell had the back half of her triple Lutz-triple toe combination called under-rotated.

Audrey Shin, the 16-year-old, 2019 U.S. junior silver medalist who failed to qualify for last season’s senior nationals, is a surprising third at 69.77.

Two-time reigning U.S. champion Alysa Liu, 15, is too young for Skate America, but will be old enough next year in the Olympic season.

Skate America continues later Friday with the men’s and pairs’ short programs and the rhythm dance. The free skates are Saturday.

SKATE AMERICA: TV, Live Stream ScheduleResults

Bell is looking to notch the biggest win of her career. She broke through at Skate America four years ago with a silver medal, was a 2018 Olympic alternate and, back in January, took silver at the U.S. Championships.

“I had a lot of great momentum coming off of last year,” said Bell, who added former training partner Adam Rippon to her coaching team in the last year. “I truly feel like I’m just coming into my prime.”

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fourth at the 2014 Olympics and is on the comeback trail, was 12th of 12 skaters with 46.36 points.

Gold struggled on jumps, unable to complete any triples. She left figure skating before the 2018 Olympic season to receive treatment for an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

Gold, 12th at January’s nationals with similar jump problems, rated her short “zero stars on Tripadvisor, would not do again.”

“I didn’t bring any energy out onto the ice,” she said. “Just really nervous.”

Gold also lamented her Las Vegas bubble experience amid the coronavirus pandemic. Like in other sports, accredited personnel are spending a vast majority of their time at the hotel or the competition venue.

“It kind of reminds me of when I was clinically depressed,” she said.

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WATCH LIVE: Skate America short programs

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Skate America kicks off the Grand Prix figure skating season, live on NBC Sports and Peacock Premium on Friday night.

NBCSN has coverage from 8 p.m.-12 a.m. ET, also streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Peacock Premium, NBC Universal’s new streaming service, begins coverage with the first short program at 7 p.m.

Skate America Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Program Time (ET) Network
Friday Short Programs 8 p.m.-12 a.m. NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short 7:06 p.m. Peacock Premium | Skate Order
Men’s Short 8:56 p.m. Peacock Premium | Skate Order
Pairs’ Short 10:46 p.m. Peacock Premium | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 12:20 a.m. Peacock Premium | Skate Order

U.S. champions Nathan Chen, Bradie Tennell and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue headline the event, which usually includes some of the world’s best skaters but is limited to mostly Americans this year due to coronavirus pandemic-related travel concerns.

There will be no ticketed spectators at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, but fan cutouts as has become common in sports this year.

Competition, which will help determine the favorites for the U.S. Championships in January, starts with the women’s short program (7:06 p.m. ET).

The favorites are Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion and Olympian, and Mariah Bell, the 2020 U.S. silver medalist. Two-time reigning U.S. champion Alysa Liu, at 15, is too young for Grand Prix competition.

The men’s short (8:56 p.m.) includes Chen, seeking a record-tying fourth straight Skate America title. Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics and faces a field that includes 2018 Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and 2020 U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

Pairs’ is, as usual, the most wide-open event (10:46 p.m.). Three teams are past national champions — Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDucTarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea — and Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who won national titles with previous partners, teamed up this year.

In ice dance (12:20 a.m.), world medalists Hubbell and Donohue begin their trek toward a possible third straight Skate America title. Their domestic rivals the last two seasons, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, withdrew two weeks ago, citing a focus on the U.S. Championships and their training being affected by the pandemic.

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