Nathan Chen is 17 going on an Olympic gold medal. That’s a bit presumptuous, to be sure, but it also just might end up becoming true — if not in 2018, then perhaps 2022 — so the dreaming and hoping might as well just begin now.
Chen, the serious jumping prodigy American men’s figure skating has been waiting for, landed two quadruple jumps in an exhilarating 2 minute, 40 second short program Friday night at the U.S. national championships on his way to setting an American record in the men’s short program with a score of 106.39 points. That was more than 17 points ahead of his nearest competitor, which means we might as well just go ahead and give him his first national senior (Olympic level) title now.
“Finally, this is the program I’ve been looking for all season,” the pleasantly confident Chen said after it was over. “It’s definitely a huge step for me. And I’m really happy with the score that I got. That was huge.”
Chen, who grew up in Salt Lake City and trains in Southern California, is not an entirely unknown quantity. He finished third at last year’s national championships — becoming the first U.S. man to land two quads in a short program and four quads in a long program — and was ready to take on his first world championships when he injured his left hip in the skating exhibition a few hours later, requiring surgery.
Off the ice for nearly six months, he came back with a vengeance this season, winning a prestigious and unexpected silver medal behind 2014 Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at last month’s Grand Prix Final, becoming the second youngest men’s medalist in the 22-year history of the event.
And now this: a short program brimming with the toughest jumps anyone on earth can do, aided by a disarming polish on his footwork and step sequences. In other words, the kid is the total package.
“He is going to grow up and we are looking to do something more and more and more,” said his coach, Rafael Arutunian. “The only scary part is to not get him damaged (injured).”
This is uncharted territory for American male figure skaters. Over the past half-dozen years, U.S. men have basically watched the world pass them by. As more top international male skaters landed quads, U.S. men found themselves extolling the virtues of the artistic side of the sport, saying jumping was not everything. Translation: they didn’t have the quads, and they knew it.
Even the great Evan Lysacek, the last U.S. men’s Olympic gold medalist, won his title in Vancouver in 2010 with a balanced program without a quad.
Since Lysacek won the 2009 world championship, 21 world medals — gold, silver and bronze — have been given out in the men’s event. The United States hasn’t won a one of them.
Should Chen land his four quads Sunday and go on to a decisive win, he should breeze into the world championships in Helsinki in two months with a real chance to end that drought and head into the 2018 Winter Olympics as a medal contender.
“That’s what I’ve strived for my whole life,” he said. “It’s not something I should be afraid of. It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. I thrive off the energy that everyone’s giving me. It feels like something I’m expected to do, which I’m able to deliver and prove that I can do it.”
The United States will have two men’s entries in the upcoming world championships. If Chen indeed has one of those spots locked up, the other one is wide open, with another youngster posing a real threat to take it.
Don’t look now but there’s a 16-year-old coming right behind the 17-year-old. That’s Vincent Zhou of Palo Alto, Calif., who landed a quadruple jump of his own in his short program and is planning two more in his long program. He found himself in third place, less than a point behind veteran Ross Miner, who did not try a quad.
“It’s really great to see these younger guys, Nathan and Vincent, pushing the boundaries,” Miner said.
Another veteran, the lyrical Jason Brown, whose right foot has been in a boot here as he recovers from a stress fracture, stands in fourth, a whopping 27 points behind Chen, after falling on his triple axel. He also did not try a quad.
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SOURCE: USA Today, by Christine Brennan