LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Nathan Chen nodded, shook a mini stuffed tiger and patted his coach on the back after seeing his worst free skate score in 13 months.
“I’m sorry, Raf,” Chen told his coach, gruff Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan. “The fall, it was stupid. I need to work harder.”
Chen, the 18-year-old wunderkind of U.S. figure skating, won Skate America on Saturday to remain the only undefeated male skater this Olympic season.
But he looked very beatable. Chen fell once (nearly twice), singled an Axel and winced after his 4-minute, 30-second free skate at Herb Brooks Arena.
“We’ve worked really hard, and I definitely did not show it tonight,” Chen said later. “So I apologized.”
His score: 171.46 points for the free skate.
Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion but not an Olympic medal favorite like Chen, outscored his training partner by 5.65 points on Saturday.
But Chen’s 15-point lead from Friday’s short program, where he scored a personal best, allowed him to hang on for the title, comfortably by nine points overall.
Arutyunyan said Chen is skating through many challenges, according to Icenetwork.com.
“Technique, and confidence, and blades and injuries, so many things around,” he said, according to the website. “We cannot talk about everything because it is very private, and we are working on it.”
Rippon incredibly hung on for silver after popping his dislocated right shoulder back into place following a near fall on his opening quadruple Lutz.
Chen and Rippon are going to the Grand Prix Final in two weeks. There in Japan, the top six skaters per discipline from this fall’s Grand Prix series face off in the single biggest indicator of Olympic medal prospects.
They’ll be joined by world silver and bronze medalists Shoma Uno (Japan) and Jin Boyang (China), plus Russians Mikhail Kolyada and Sergey Voronov.
The men who won’t be at the Grand Prix Final are even more accomplished — all three 2014 Olympic medalists (including the injured Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada) and the 2015 and 2016 World champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.
Chan and Fernandez each struggled in the first of their two scheduled Grand Prix starts, with Chan pulling out of his second.
Their absences further open the door for Chen, who was sixth at last season’s worlds with boot problems, to notch the biggest win of his young senior career.
Then in February, Chen can become the youngest individual Olympic male figure skating medalist since Viktor Petrenko in 1988. Or the youngest gold medalist since Dick Button in 1948.
Rippon, meanwhile, looks like a favorite to make his first Olympic team at age 28, after qualifying for his second straight Grand Prix Final.
Rippon came back from a broken foot in January to make the podium in both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. He stayed on his feet Saturday after dislocating his shoulder while putting his arm down on the landing of an opening quadruple Lutz.
Rippon joked that if that had happened in practice, he would “stop and call 911.” It actually did happen in practice two months ago.
“It felt so nauseous I thought I was going to black out [in practice],” said Rippon, who is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936, according to Olympic historians. “Now that I’ve done it again, it’s just get back in there buddy.
“You know what, I love drama, so I said, you know what, I can make it through this. I wanted to show my character, that I’m really tough, and I’m up for the challenge of anything, including the Olympic Games.”
Chen and Rippon, along with Jason Brown, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron, are the leading contenders for the three-man Olympic team that will be named after nationals in January.
The Olympic team will be chosen based not only off nationals results, but also via a committee dissecting performances from the last year.
Chen is assumed to be a lock. His rivals are not domestic but foreign. Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Jin.
Only Uno has scored higher than Chen this season. Only Hanyu and Uno scored higher last season.
All have had bad days this season. Now, Chen joins them.
“This is a totally new experience for me,” Chen said of struggling in competition. “It’s always a good experience for me to have bad moments like this so I know how to prepare better for the next event.”
Earlier Saturday, Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot won the pairs title, vaulting past two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada with a personal-best free skate score.
The Germans won with 223.13, followed by Chinese Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao with 219.20. Duhamel and Radford, first after the short program, dropped to third with 215.68 after Duhamel fell on side-by-side jumps.
All three pairs qualified for the Grand Prix Final, where the clear favorites are Chinese world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.
The top U.S. team was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim in fifth. No U.S. pair made a Grand Prix podium this season for the first time since 2011.
The Knierims are the clear favorites for the U.S.’ one Olympic pairs spot going into nationals in January. The only previous time that fewer than two U.S. pairs competed at the Winter Olympics was at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.
U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier‘s 20th-place finish at worlds last season dropped the U.S. from its usual two Olympic pairs spots to one.
The Knierims, who missed most of last season due to Alexa’s life-threatening abdominal condition, were the top-scoring U.S. pair this Grand Prix season by 15 points.
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1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 275.88
2. Adam Rippon (USA) — 266.45
3. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 257.49
7. Ross Miner (USA) — 219.62
1. Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 223.13
2. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 219.20
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 215.68
5. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 189.07
7. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.16
8. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay (USA) — 165.00