Nathan Chen put on quite a show at the U.S. national championships in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sunday.
He made history by becoming the first skater to cleanly landed five quadruple jumps in competition in his free skate on the way to a huge victory, and in the process established himself as a possible contender for the gold medal at next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.
The 17-year-old from Salt Lake City became the youngest U.S. champion in more than 50 years (since Scott Allen in 1966) while winning by a whopping 55 points over second-place Vincent Zhou.
“I’ve never seen someone jump so technically perfect and with confidence,” commented NBC analyst Tara Lipinski during Chen’s free skate to “Polovtsian Dances.” “The type of stamina that you need to get through that many quads and retain the energy, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Fantastic. Fantastic,” said Chen’s coach Rafael Arutunian as he embraced his student when he came off the ice.
Chen was second behind Hanyu this season at both the NHK Trophy and Grand Prix Final and is clearly on the rise.
But is he really good enough at this point to challenge Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and two-time world champion Javier Fernandez?
Ice Time does not think so. Chen’s technical prowess cannot be denied, but a couple of factors need to be kept in mind.
First, scores at national competitions are generally higher than those at international competitions. So Chen’s total tally of 318.47 points has to be weighted against that reality.
Second, he does not yet possess the refined skill of Hanyu or Fernandez in program components. That may improve with time, but at this point Chen is not in the same league with those two in that category.
Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, also a commentator for NBC, was impressed by Chen’s presentation.
“He’s an artist. He kept everybody into that,” stated Weir. “He had the eye. He had the facial expression. He had it all.”
That’s Weir’s impression of one performance. But as has been proven time and again, the judges want to see consistently outstanding technical elements and program components. This is what resonates with them.
Chen even admitted as much after his record-setting effort.
“That was an amazing performance, I’m really happy with what I did technically, obviously,” Chen was quoted as saying be Ice Network’s Lynn Rutherford. “Component-wise, I kind of faltered a little bit, stuff happens when you’re pushing the technical elements to the max. It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to working on and improve for worlds.”
If anything, Chen has made next month’s Four Continents Championships at Gangneung Ice Arena in South Korea much more interesting. He and Hanyu are both scheduled to compete there, so it should make the event very compelling.
Last season’s junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi fell twice in his free skate and finished 15th with 196.09.
“I think what I need for next year is the consistency, stamina, and better skating skills,” Hiwatashi wrote in an email to Ice Time. “My component score was low so I need a better skating score that can be improved by working with Rohene (Ward) and having Jason Brown around me. Consistency may improve by just landing jumps more and more, and I will try to improve stamina by working that out with my two trainers.”
Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan) won the U.S. women’s title, with Ashley Wagner taking second place and Mariah Bell third.
Mirai Nagasu, second after the short program, struggled in her free skate and had to settle for fourth. The result likely cost her a trip to the world championships in Helsinki in March.
Breaking up: Gracie Gold’s sixth-place finish kept her from making the U.S. team for the worlds. To add insult to disappointment, legendary skating writer Phil Hersh broke the news on icenetwork.com on Sunday that coach Frank Carroll and Gold would be splitting up.
Usually it is the skater that gives the coach the boot. But the 78-year-old Carroll, who has been in the game for decades, got in the first punch by telling Hersh, “There will be a change. But you can’t just say goodbye. It’s got to be worked out intelligently and legally when we get home.”
Gold was caught off guard when she received the news.
“I am surprised that Frank announced his decision before informing me,” she said in a statement. “I continue to have the utmost respect for Frank Carroll and his legacy. He took me on during a very vulnerable time, and I am forever grateful for our work together.”
Carroll gave a concise assessment of the situation to Hersh.
“When you spend a lot of time with somebody and give them all your energy and realize that it is now going nowhere, I think it is time for a change, definitely,” Carroll stated.
When Ice Time read this he could not help but think of three-time world champion Mao Asada and her current predicament. Mao would be wise to heed the words of Carroll, the Hall of Famer who coached Michelle Kwan to four world titles and Evan Lysacek to the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Change, as difficult as it may be, is part of life and sports.
When I think of Mao’s plight I am reminded of the words of Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh.
“You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same,” Walsh said of performance levels of his teams from season to season.
Paying the price: The on-ice performances were not the only news to emerge from the U.S. championships. Sam Auxier, the president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, fired a broadside at Russia over the doping scandal at the Sochi Games, saying the country should be banned from Pyeongchang.
“I don’t think they should be able to (compete),” Auxier was quoted as saying by AP at the nationals. “It was state sponsored. It was a huge program, well-coordinated to cheat, and they should pay a pretty stiff penalty. I think the only way the IOC and the ISU (International Skating Union) maintain any level of integrity is to take a strong stand and weigh a strong penalty for those actions.”
Auxier is not a lone voice on the subject, as leaders from 19 national anti-doping agencies, including Japan, have asked that Russia be excluded from Pyeongchang. Ice Time feels it is a fair request.
This is putting the IOC in a very difficult position.
The impact of Russia not being at the Olympics would be especially pronounced in skating. Russia won the gold in the team event, women’s singles and pairs in Sochi.
World champion Evgenia Medvedeva is the favorite for gold in Pyeongchang, if she is allowed to skate, but that is a very big “if” right now.
The fallout from the McLaren Report has been profound and it does not look like it is over yet. Several news outlets, including Italy’s Gazetta dello Sport, have reported that gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova’s doping sample following the free skate showed possible signs of tampering.
Sotnikova may well be an innocent victim in all of this, but she could end up being collateral damage as well. If there is evidence of unfair intervention, it is obvious that the ISU is going to have to change the results of the women’s singles.
Whether Sotnikova knew about it or was involved is irrelevant.
The irony here can’t be understated. Ice Time was in the Iceberg Skating Palace the night that Sotnikova was controversially given the gold over Yuna Kim. He smelled something wrong right away.
The ISU and IOC chose to look the other way in the judging scandal that followed and let the results stand, despite the outrage and condemnation of fans, media and members of the international skating community.
Now, in a bizarre twist that nobody at the time could have foreseen, the ISU and IOC have essentially been given a mulligan. If there is any indication of manipulation with Sotnikova’s sample, the ISU and IOC are going to have to do the right thing this time, or risk losing all credibility.
If Sotnikova is disqualified, Kim would get the gold, Italy’s Carolina Kostner the silver, and Gracie Gold the bronze.
Ice Time was the first to mention this possibility last July when the McLaren Report first disclosed the diabolical doping scandal that occurred in Sochi. Some scoffed at the suggestion then that Kim could end up with the gold after all.
They aren’t scoffing now.