This is definitely where I wanted to be, all that I dreamed of. I’m really happy that I took all the right steps, that I put in the work to get myself where I am now. —Nathan Chen
SAN JOSE, Calif. — With the same icy calm and silent strength that has propelled him to the top of the podium in every competition this season, Nathan Chen earned his second straight U.S. championship with a dominating performance that included five quads and likely earned him his first trip to the Olympics.
“I am very happy with tonight,” the 18-year-old said after offering his best performance of the season — a 41-point victory that capped a night of upsets and surprises at the SAP Center in San Jose. “I laid out a five-part program, which I haven’t been able to do all season. I had a mistake on the axel, which I’ll have to address when I get home, but ultimately, I’m very happy with tonight. I think I really did my job here.”
Chen’s all-business demeanor cracked for just a moment as he reflected on how watching the 2002 Olympics in his hometown of Salt Lake City as 3-year-old ignited a fire in him that continues to burn in his heart.
“It’s been a really fun journey since 2002,” he said with a smile. “This is definitely where I wanted to be, all that I dreamed of. I’m really happy that I took all the right steps, that I put in the work to get myself where I am now. It’s all happening so fast, it seems like just yesterday that I first stepped on the ice. I still need time to really wrap my head around it. But I’m so happy with everything that’s already been happening.”
Chen’s victory was one of the few aspects of the men’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships that went as planned. While he landed all five of his planned quads and earned higher execution and component (artistic) scores than every other skater, other veterans and fan favorites suffered uncharacteristic struggles and stumbles that created quite a mess for figure skating officials to sort out as they decide which three skaters will represent the U.S. in the 2018 Olympics.
Chen standing atop the podium was the only part of Saturday night’s free skate that went as expected. Ross Miner, 26, earned silver with 274.51 points, while 17-year-old Vincent Zhou took the bronze with 273.83 points.
After the short program, Chen led, with 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon sitting in second and 2014 Olympian Jason Brown in third. Miner was in sixth place and Zhou was in fifth place.
Both Rippon and Brown fell on their quad, but they also had other uncharacteristic stumbles and mistakes throughout their programs.
“Over the past few years, I’ve had one bad skate, not even at a competition,” Rippon said. “On the first quad Lutz, I just felt like I was losing my right foot a little bit, and I just let that feeling get the best of me at the end. It was just gone.”
Saturday’s competition comes one year to the day that he broke his foot, which meant he missed out on last year’s nationals and world championships.
“I skated a little bit like it was still broken,” he said, exhibiting the candid humor for which he is known.
Rippon said he believes he deserves to be named to the Olympic team, despite finishing fourth.
“I knew there was a criteria set to make the Olympic team,” he said. “I feel like I have better criteria than second and third place here, but with that being said, Vincent and Ross skated very well tonight. No matter what the selection is, I will be 100 percent OK. And I can handle that.”
Only Chen is a sure bet to make the 2018 Olympic team, which will be announced on Sunday morning.
“I still need time to wrap my head around this,” Chen said of realizing a dream. “This is the dream I’ve wanted for a long, long time. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to be on the Olympic team.”
He said recovering from an illness that kept him from training for a week and a half forced him to make some changes, including dropping his toughest quad jump. He’s not sure what he’ll put back into the program, or if he’ll make more changes as the games approach.
He admitted it’s been frustrating to struggle, even as he’s been winning.
“I had frustrations here and there throughout the season,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of doing. I’m glad I was able to do what I did here.”
Chen, who exhibited his laser focus and steely determination regardless of the situation this week, managed his best performance of the season when it mattered most.
As it turns out, just about the only thing Chen can’t do is reach his own lofty expectations, which he said he set with his record-breaking performance at the U.S. championships last winter. He is unapologetic in his desire to continue pushing the sport’s athletic feats while refining his artistic development.
“Definitely, I’ve set a bar, and I wouldn’t even say I reached it today,” Chen said. “I still have a way to go before I am able to do that. I know I’m capable of doing (what he did last year), and today was close to that.”