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Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
Nathan Chen performs during the men's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
I’m getting there, basically 100 percent. Over the past two weeks, I was really sick. It was just a challenge to get through practices, but I’m basically good now. —Nathan Chen

SAN JOSE, Calif. — With what he called a ‘watered-down’ program, Nathan Chen easily took the lead in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night in San Jose.

“I felt alright,” the Salt Lake native said with a shrug after earning the top score in the short program 104.45 at the event that will also decide who represents the U.S. at the Olympics next month. “I watered down the program. … But I think that was a smart move, especially considering circumstances going into this event. I’m happy with tonight.”

The "circumstances" to which Chen refers is an undisclosed illness that kept the 18-year-old defending U.S. champion from his usual training schedule. He’s been tight-lipped about the details of what ailed him and is equivocal about whether or not he’s at 100 percent.

“I’m getting there, basically 100 percent,” he said. “Over the past two weeks, I was really sick. It was just a challenge to get through practices, but I’m basically good now.”

Chen, whose jumping ability has helped propel the sport toward more quads than ever, changed his quad lutz to a quad toe, but he landed two quads in his short program. He hasn't lost a competition this season.

“Lutz the whole week has not been my forte,” Chen said. “I thought they’d be my two highest-percentage jumps.”

Adam Rippon, who broke his foot one year ago Saturday, sits in second-place with 96.52 points, while Jason Brown is in third place with a score of 93.23. Neither of them even attempted quads in their short program, but both have them planned for their free skate on Saturday night.

“I am super happy for (Adam),” Chen said. “He skated an amazing short program. He does it all the time in practice, so I didn’t really expect anything less from him.”

Rippon said his comeback is made of all of his past heartbreaks, as well as his triumphs.

“Every disappointment has made me so much stronger,” he said. “I’m just a completely different person.”

Each of the men had to overcome struggles to earn their top scores Thursday night. Chen struggled in practice yesterday, while Rippon said his six-minute warmup let him know he was too tight.

“My mind was not in the right place yesterday,” Chen said. “Having a day to recalculate definitely helped.”

Rippon said he was just grateful to be competing again — something he hasn’t always appreciated.

“I just feel very in the moment here,” he said. “I feel so grateful to have this moment again. I know what it’s like to sit out. … I’m just going for it, and if I go for it, I’m proud of myself.”

Chen, who will attempt five quads in Saturday’s free skate, admitted that he felt a difference in the energy at this championship event, as it is a significant determiner of which skaters will represent the U.S. in Pyeongchang next month.

“I definitely feel the energy is different than last year,” he said. “But, ultimately, I have to do what I set out to do and focus on my own goals.”

Chen said he was only minimally aware of how well the men in front of him were skating in Thursday’s event.

“I make sure I’m in my zone,” said Chen, who became the youngest U.S. champion in 51 years with a record-setting score last year. “I’ll always get nervous regardless of how big or small the competition is. … Usually, once the music starts, the nerves kind of switch to confidence. Then I let myself go into auto drive, and let my training kick in.”