Nathan Chen, the defending world champion, captured his third straight senior men’s figure skating national title in Detroit on Saturday. He beat silver medalist Vincent Zhou by 58 points.
Though no one doubted whether Chen would defend his 2018 title and get the threepeat—he arrived in Detroit fresh off his Grand Prix Final win in Vancouver this past December—he hasn’t exactly had a perfect skating season thus far, perhaps due to the changes in his training and living situation. Since the late summer, he’s been living in New Haven, Conn., away from his training base in Southern California as he attends his freshman year at Yale. He has prepared for this skating season mostly on his own, Facetiming only occasionally with his coach Rafael Arutunian. All season long, he’s been juggling academics, training, competition that took him out of the country. He told NBC Sports that his professors have been accommodating of his travel schedule.
(Can you imagine if they weren’t? If one of those Yale professors was a dick about it and asked the top ranked male skater in the world, “Mr. Chen, what could possibly be more important than my class?” I do not doubt that there is at least one Yale professor who considers his course to be more important than the Grand Prix Final.)
He did win both of his Grand Prix assignments and then the final, though none of these skates were at his usual level. But in Detroit, even though Chen only performed four quads, two shy of the six quads he did during the free skate at the Olympics, every single one of them was gorgeous as was everything else in the programs.
And then he nearly tripped and fell as he made his way to the winner’s podium. I think he did this on purpose just to be appear relatable to the rest of us non-skating mortals.
Zhou, like Chen, also went for four quad jumps but fell on one and under-rotated another. Zhou’s struggle with his quads in this program underscores just how difficult these jumps are. When you’re watching Chen do them with such ease, you tend to forget how significant of a feat completing one—let alone four or five or six—truly is.
Which brings us to Jason Brown, who won bronze. Brown finished a disappointing fifth at last year’s nationals after a badly botched long program and wasn’t named to the Olympic team that went to Pyeongchang. After the season, he changed coaches, moving away from longtime coach Kori Ade in Colorado Springs to Toronto to work with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. The Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling club is the training site for some of the biggest names in the sport, including two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and Olympic bronze medalist Javier Fernandez. Two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedva and Brown are the most recent big name arrivals to Toronto.
After some rough outings earlier in the season, Brown seems to have adjusted to his new regimen and looked much better than he did last year at this time. But still, the quad still eludes him in competition. Brown didn’t attempt one in the short program and finished in second place behind Chen, but with such a slim lead over Zhou that they were virtually tied. At the start of yesterday’s free skate, Brown went for a quad salchow but popped the jump. The rest of the program, set to a Simon and Garfunkel medley, was beautifully skated but he slipped to third behind Zhou.
At the 2014 nationals, Brown became a sensation when his free skate performance to “Riverdance” went viral and earned him a spot on the 2014 Olympic team. At the end of his performance, Sandra Bezic—this was before the start of the Tara Lipinski/Johnny Weir era in figure skating commentary—said of the then 19-year-old’s lack of quad jumps, “The quad will come.”
It’s been five years since that breakout performance at nationals. And in that time, Brown has had a lot of success—helping the U.S. win the team bronze in Sochi, winning the U.S. national title in 2015, placing fourth at the world championships. He’s achieved so much on the strength of his deep edges, his skating skills, his beautiful spins—his natural flexibility allows him to hit positions most of the other men can’t hit—and stellar interpretive chops. You just want Brown to finally get the quad, not just because he has been trying so hard to master it, but so you can see what he could do and where he could place if he could add that along to everything else he does so wonderfully on the ice.
Brown, who according to training reports had been hitting the quad salchow in practice, will get that chance in an even more pressure filled-situation when he, Chen, and Zhou compete at the world championships in March in Saitama, Japan.