KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Hyped as the future of men’s skating, Nathan Chen put the sport on notice that his time is now.
Chen dazzled and dominated as he stamped himself as a future Olympic medalist contender, connecting on a pair of quads and slaying the competition with a short program record score of 106.39 at the U.S. figure skating championships on Friday night.
The 17-year-old Chen delivered a stunning performance that seemed to defy gravity and had the Sprint Center crowd clapping along with his routine and earned him the only standing ovation of the night.
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”This is the performance I’ve been looking for all season,” Chen said. ”I finally put on a good short program. I hit all the elements I was setting out to do.”
Chen scored nearly 20 points higher than his closest competitor, Ross Miner, and would need a complete collapse Sunday not to walk out of Kansas City with a gold medal.
Chen is poised to boost the flagging men’s program needs headed into next year’s Winter Games in South Korea. Chen hit his quadruple lutz triple toe loop combination, a quadruple flip, a triple axel and his fancy and flawless footwork was about as perfect as it could get.
All eyes were on Chen – and the Salt Like City teen training in California never cracked.
”It definitely does add a lot of pressure and a little bit of nerves to my skating,” Chen said. ”It gives me a lot more excitement. I definitely feel the praise and it feels like this is something I’m able to do. I feel like I’m able to deliver and prove I can do it.”
Chen was the heavy favorite to win it all with reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon out with an injury. Chen became the youngest U.S. male to earn a medal at nationals when he won bronze last year and seemed poised to skyrocket toward more medals in 2016.
But he injured his hip in an exhibition hours after winning the medal. He suffered an avulsion injury, where a piece of the hip bone splintered off, and missed the world championships. Chen would have been competing at his first senior world championships.
The 17-year-old prodigy has recovered – all that’s left is a surgical screw and a scar – and landed four of his stunning quadruple jumps during the Grand Prix final last month in Marseille, France, to earn silver, becoming the second-youngest ever to medal at the event. He was beat out for gold by 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
The Olympics are clearly on his career path.
”I don’t think it’s something I should necessarily be afraid of,” he said. ”It’s something I wanted my whole life.”
All 17 years.
Chen might have impressed Brian Boitano if the 1988 Olympic gold medalist was still watching at the party he hosted down the block from the arena. Boitano and Evan Lysacek in 2010 are the last two men to win Olympic gold in skating.
Chen might not be skating’s savior – but he could at least fuel the program’s comeback.
”I feel like we’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said. ”We’ve kind of sunk a little bit. But I think me and some of the skaters coming up for this even will help put the U.S back on the map.”
How’s this for impressive? The 21 skaters in Friday’s competition landed five quads; Chen had two.
”Nathan is going to change our sport,” NBC announcer Tara Lipinski said. ”He is going to change the face of U.S. figure skating. He is gutsy. He is talented. You look at him when he was a little novice boy and everyone talking about him; they talked about him the next year, and the next year and the next year. To be able to do that for so long is rare in this sport.”
Vincent Zhou woke up a sleepy crowd and his performance earned eight more points than any of the 14 competitors before him. The 16-year-old Zhou nailed an exquisite quad salchow and those four revolutions turned the short program on its head.
Zhou’s career has been beset by injuries, and he said a bad hip curtailed his performance this season.
His confidence was sky high following her performance three spots ahead of Chen.
”Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me,” Zhou said. ”It just feels really amazing to start closing the gap.”
Not so fast.
Chen and 16-year-old Zhou could only hope to anchor the men’s program for years ahead. Zhou, the 2013 U.S. junior champion, said he never looked at Chen as a rival.
”I don’t think about my competitors,” Zhou said.
Chen and Zhou were the fantastic finale in the nightcap.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani never missed a beat in an elegant routine that earned them a record score of 82.42 points and an early lead in the short ice dance competition. The Shibutanis were the clear front-runners, especially after their bronze medal at the Grand Prix final. They won the gold medal at the U.S. championships last season and could go back-to-back with another sensational effort Sunday.
They zipped around the Sprint Center ice on Friday and the brother-sister pair had the crowd going wild in an uninhibited performance. Last year at the championships, the Shibutanis had to rally after the short dance to win the gold medal. But the mistakes were minuscule and their flawless twizzle series – a series of continuous turns across the ice – put them atop of what is considered a wide-open field.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 champs who took silver a year ago, tore it up in a routine that used the bluesy ”Bad to the Bone” and ”Uptown Funk” as their soundtrack. With a funky set that had the crowd seem like they were peeking inside a nightclub, Chock and Bates scored 79.96 points and are in second place.
”We made some big changes,” Bates said. ”We didn’t have a huge window of time to master all those new pieces, so, considering everything, we really were happy.”
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, three-time bronze medalists, were third with 79.72 points and had the routine of the night – until the Shibutanis immediately followed them.
”I think for a while we felt like we deserved bigger scores than we were getting in our performances,” Donohue said. ”It’s nice to finish a program that we feel good about and feel that the crowd and the judges feel the same way.”
With these three couples powering the way, the U.S. has become the world power in ice dance. Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis finished eighth and ninth in Sochi. Since then, their performances have continued to make them feel they can aim even higher in Pyeongchang.