Houston Chronicle

Chen runs away with fifth national crown

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LAS VEGAS — Dick Button has always been the measuring stick for American men figure skaters. And no wonder, with seven straight U.S. titles and two Olympic gold medals.

Nathan Chen has leapt into Button territory.

Even with an error at the beginning of his free skate, Chen was unbeatable Sunday, winning his fifth straight U.S. Figure Skating Championsh­ip. Not since Button won each title from 1946-52 has any American man had such a streak of success. Throw in two world championsh­ips and being unbeaten since not medaling at the 2018 Olympics, and Chen already has a resume for the ages.

At age 21.

“It’s incredible to try to follow in his footsteps,” Chen said of Button. “It means the world. Dick is a true skating icon, and it just feels incredible to be trying to chase something that someone like that has done. I’m nowhere near the level he was at, but it’s just cool to be able to be even mentioned in his sort of realm of legendness.”

The fact is, in this country at least, Chen is pretty much competing against himself.

“Ultimately it comes down to the fact that everyone is capable of doing it,” he said, “but I still want to focus on what I’m capable of doing myself and just being able to try to improve on myself.”

Chen pretty much ignored the rough beginning of his free skate, when he put his hands down and stepped out of a quad lutz. He hit four more quads, three in combinatio­n, and a triple axel deep into his program.

There was a fluidity to his choreograp­hy and spins, and his 322.28 points were unmatchabl­e by anybody in the field.

“I was a little timid today. Honestly that’s on me,“Chen said. “I feel like I didn’t

really tackle my elements. I was focusing on conserving energy. That’s not the right approach. I think that’s what caused the first element to have an error. The rest of the program I was trying to make sure I stayed on my feet. That was my mindset throughout the program.

“Wasn’t really exactly the skate I’d like to have, but at least I was able to stand up on all the rest of the jumps

and I guess move on from here.”

His main challenger­s couldn’t stand up throughout their free skates, and Vincent Zhou’s 291.38 total wasn’t in the same stratosphe­re as Chen. Zhou popped a quad flip and fell on a quad lutz, but the 2018 Olympian still held on to second place.

“I’m really not happy with myself for throwing away my first 300-point opportunit­y like that,” Zhou said. “But all the same, this competitio­n is still a great experience and lots of positives as well.”

Jason Brown, the final competitor at these fan-less nationals at the Orleans Arena — they were moved from San Jose, California, due to the COVID-19 pandemic — stayed in third place at 276.92 points.

“Overall I’m pretty pleased with how the event went,“said Brown, a 2014 team medalist at the Sochi Games. “A bit disappoint­ed in today. I have high expectatio­ns in myself. What I was hoping for I fell a little short.”

Chen fell all over the ice in the short program at the Pyeongchan­g Games, then was spectacula­r in winning the free skate to begin what now is nearly three years of being on the top step of the medals podium. He won the 2018 worlds — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu was injured and skipped them — and then took worlds again in 2019.

But the coronaviru­s pandemic caused cancellati­on of last year’s worlds in Montreal, as well as this season’s Grand Prix final. Only at Skate America in October was Chen able to strut his stuff.

So it’s understand­able and excusable if he wasn’t at his peak Sunday. And really no matter, too.

“Super thrilled with the results,“he said.

Other winners at nationals, which could be the last significan­t competitio­n of the season should worlds in March at Stockholm be canceled for the second straight year, were: Bradie Tennell with her second women’s title; Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue for their third ice dance championsh­ip; and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in pairs.

Knierim had won two titles with husband Chris, who retired before this season, and Frazier had earned on with previous partner Haven Denney.

 ?? Matthew Stockman / Getty Images ?? Nathan Chen earned his fifth straight national title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championsh­ips on Sunday.
Matthew Stockman / Getty Images Nathan Chen earned his fifth straight national title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championsh­ips on Sunday.

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