Always one of the marquee events at the U.S. Championships, the senior men did not disappoint last night in San Jose. In a hard fought competition, pre-event favorite Nathan Chen won the battle, but left the door open for others to make Saturday’s free skate a must-see event.
Chen opened his “Nemesis” routine with a huge quad flip-triple toe loop earning the reigning Grand Prix Final champion more than 18 points. Later in the program, Chen switched a planned quad Lutz for an easier quad toe loop, before stepping out of his triple Axel. “The program was a little watered down,” he admitted. “I didn’t do the quad Lutz and I did make a mistake on the Axel, which was a little frustrating. Overall I think the program was OK. The audience was very loud, very receptive. I really enjoyed myself.”
The 18 year-old, who earned 104.45 points, said he is trying to manage the hype around making his first Olympic team. “I try to keep it business as usual. Obviously, I do feel the buzz and the Olympic energy, which honestly isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it motivates us all to perform better, and I see that. I’m enjoying that it’s the Olympic season, but ultimately, I have my own job and I just have to focus on that.”
Trailing Chen by less than eight points, Adam Rippon kept his hopes for an Olympic team berth alive with arguably the best short program of his career. “I am really happy with what I was able to put out today,” Rippon said. “I’m waiting for my day of reckoning on Saturday, which is the one year anniversary of me breaking my foot. So I’m here for that drama, and this was the first step that I needed to take to have that amazing comeback I felt I was going to have.
“I’m really proud of what I was able to do today. I stayed focused on each and every single element, and I told myself that I was going to give every single element 100 percent and I was able to do that.”
Rippon transformed the SAP Center into a dance club with his “Advice of Tomorrow/Let Me Think About It” routine that elicited rock star level appreciation from the crowd. This performance was light years ahead of what he had put forth in his previous attempts make the U.S. Olympic Team. “I’ve had visions of what I’ve done the past four years dancing through my head like a nightmare,” Rippon said. “I remember eight years ago I did a double Lutz and fell on the footwork. And then four years ago I let the pressure get to me and I was a disaster. I said, I’m eight years wiser, I’m stronger, I’m cuter, and I’m just poised and ready. Ready to reclaim my time.
Rippon was sheer perfection on each element, earning positive grades of execution all round. Though he attempted no quad jump, he earned the third highest technical score of the event. This is a complete transformation from the athlete who once told his coach that he did not like to compete. Rippon earned a career-high 96.52 points in the short.
“At first I was like, ‘OK, I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he admitted. “But every time I found myself trying to take time off the ice, I just found myself back at the rink because it was like my home — I just kind of felt like I had more to do — like I was doing myself an injustice if I didn’t at least try. I think so many times it takes a lot of courage to just try, and I told myself that I was just going to give myself a shot and I wasn’t going to think about anything else. That was four years ago, so here I am. I gave myself a chance, and I’m taking it.”
Jason Brown rounded out the top three, finishing with 93.23 points after making a mistake on his opening triple Axel. “Whenever something like that happens and something gets off for just a second, you want to make sure to get right back into it. But at the same time you’re like, I can’t miss anything,” Brown explained. “Everything else — every spin has to be on, every jump, the footwork, every turn — I want to get every level. You want to get every single point you can get. So that is kind of that mindset that I work in.”
Skating to music from the Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton,” Brown pulled it together after the error, and took command of the rest of the program, earning Level 4s across the board and the highest program component score of the evening, which kept Brown’s case for a second Olympic berth alive and well.
“I think that I just have to go out there (on Saturday), and show (the selection committee) the growth of my long program,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard to make it so much stronger, so I hope to go out on Saturday to put out a great program that they can see and trust. I think that through the course of the past and through the growth even into this week, I hope that they can see that I am ready, that I am here to stay, and that I am ready to make that second Olympic team.”
Grant Hochstein, fourth in this competition the last two seasons found himself in the same position again last night. However, unlike previous years, Hochstein is in the hunt for his first podium finish with 92.18 points. “It’s an honor to be here and an honor to have been on this incredible journey and long, long road,” Hochstein said. “It’s more than the Olympics this week for me. Of course, that would be incredible, but if I don’t make the Olympics, my life will go on and I will always have this moment and this is the important part for me.”
Performing to “Your Song” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, Hochstein had the skate of his life in his final national championships. The 2016 World team member opened with a strong quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination and rounded out the program with a clean triple Axel and triple Lutz. “This has been a long journey that’s gone over 20 years, since Michelle Kwan in 1998,” Hochstein said. “And this is the short program I’ve been looking for, for 20 years. I’ve worked hard for this.”
Vincent Zhou, the reigning silver medalist fell on his triple Axel attempt after landing a quad Lutz-triple toe combination, and is in fifth place with 89.02 points. Ross Miner sits in sixth with 88.91 points. Max Aaron, the 2013 national champion, struggled and lies is in a disappointing 12th place, which essentially ends his pursuit of a 2018 Olympic team berth.