Photos by Robin Ritoss
LAS VEGAS, NV–The 2020-2021 figure skating season has been anything but conventional, but there is one thing that has become a standard — Nathan Chen’s greatness in men’s figure skating. In front of a mere crowd of cardboard cutouts inside the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, the 21-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah won his fifth consecutive national title.
Chen hasn’t lost a competition since his fifth place finish at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. With a little more than a six-point advantage over Vincent Zhou after the short program, the two-time World champion delivered a free skate with four clean quadruple jumps, only stepping out and putting two hands down on the ice in his opening quad Lutz. He finished the free skate with a total score of 322.28, a triumphant victory of more than 30 points over Zhou.
“I was a little timid today,” Chen admitted to the media after his free skate. “I felt like I really didn’t attack all my elements. I was just trying to focus on conserving energy and that’s not the right approach. So I think that is what caused [the mistake] on the first element. The rest of the program I was like trying to make sure I stayed on my feet. I think that was my mindset throughout the program. It really wasn’t exactly the skate I liked to have but at least I was able to stand up on all the rest of the jumps.”
With his fifth consecutive U.S. title, Chen, who has taken time off from his studies at Yale University and is now training full-time in Irvine, Calif. with coach Rafael Arutyunyan, became the first man to claim five consecutive national titles since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button claimed the fifth of his seven consecutive national titles in 1950.
“[Winning my fifth straight title] means the world to me,” Chen expressed. “[Dick Button] is a true skating icon. It feels incredible to be trying to chase something that someone like that has done. I’m nowhere near the level that he was at, but it’s cool to be mentioned in his realm.”
After a stunning performance of his fittingly named “Vincent” short program, which garnished over 107 points, Zhou opened his free skate with a quadruple lutz – triple toe combination, but then struggled with two of his jumping passes, popping his quad flip and falling on his second quad Lutz in the second half of the program. The 2019 World bronze medalist missed eclipsing the 300 mark, winning his third U.S. silver medal with a total score of 291.38.
“I did a great job in the short program and threw away some 50 points in the long that would have gotten me over that 300 point margin for the first time,” the 20-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif. admitted. “But, you know, you win some, you lose some. [I did] some great things in this competition that I can be proud of and also lots to learn and improve on.”
Zhou almost considered walking away from the sport in the fall of 2019. He competed at the 2020 U.S. Championships where he finished in 4th place.
“A year ago at this time, I was fresh out of college [Brown University] and almost quit skating. I was off for three weeks of training, could barely do a triple axel in my program and I came out and skated two just about clean programs with only two combined quads. It was a huge personal victory for me.” Zhou recalled of his performance at the 2020 U.S. Championships.
Zhou told the media that the COVID-19 lockdown/quarantine and subsequent training without any competitions gave him time to focus on himself and evaluate his specific goals. After his second place finish at Skate America in October, Zhou suffered a couple of small injuries that kept him off the ice for about a month. After that, Zhou said he had an eight-week period leading up to the U.S. Championships where he was setting goals and working toward specific things every week.
Along with Zhou’s short program, the highlight of the men’s event may have belonged toafter his captivating Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” short program performance left fans on social media speechless and in awe of his performance. The program received 100.92 points and the 26-year-old from Highland Park, Illinois was sitting in third place heading into the free skate. After the short program, Brown told the media his intentions of keeping the program for two years.
“It speaks to the difficulty of how hard this program is, but also that desire of getting this program out in front of an audience, doing it in front of a crowd, kind of taking their energy as well, ” Brown shared. “It’s a taxing program, it takes a lot out of me and I give it my all when I do it.”
Brown’s free skate to Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” was a vision of his choreographer David Wilson and his coach, Tracy Wilson, that Brown said he wasn’t taken away by it at first. However, as they started working on the program, Brown said the program began to grow on him.
“I really love the program,” Brown shared. “We have had seven months of just cultivating it and turning it into something that I’m super proud of.”
During his performance on Sunday, Brown fell on his quadruple toe jump attempt at the start of his program and popped his second triple axel attempt, but earned 96 points in program components to win his third bronze medal.
“I’m pretty pleased with how the event went, a bit disappointed in today. I have high expectations for myself and I feel a little short of that,” Brown stated.
Unlike Chen and Zhou who competed at Skate America in October, this was Brown’s first in-person competition of the season. With the ISU Grand Prix Series events being held as domestic events this season, Brown, who trains with Wilson and Brian Orser at the Cricket Club in Toronto, Ontario, was assigned to compete at Skate Canada International in Ottawa, Ontario due to his training location. Subsequently, Skate Canada was cancelled, leaving Brown unable to compete at a Grand Prix event.
Yaroslav Paniot, who finished in 10th place at the 2020 U.S. Championships, captured the pewter medal. The 23-year-old previously competed for Ukraine and represented them at the 2018 Olympic games. Penoit began competing for the U.S. in 2019.
“Everything went very smooth because I was finally in the best shape of my life. [Winning the pewter medal] means a lot to me. This is a very big jump from tenth place to fourth place,” said Paniot.
In his senior nationals debut, 2020 U.S. junior champion Maxim Naumov finished in 5th place.
“I can’t even think right now,” said Naumov, who is coached by his parents, 1994 world pair champions Vadim Naumov and Evgenia Shishkova. “I’m just very grateful for this event. I’m very happy I was able to step up. I’m very happy that I was able to do everything that we planned to do. I’m very relieved that all the work that we put into this showed out there today.”
Jimmy Ma, who has been competing at the senior nationals since the 2014-2015 season, had his best showing at the 2021 U.S. Championships, finishing in sixth place. Closing the end of one of his best free skates, Ma had an uncharacteristic fall on his choreographic step sequence that had him laughing at the fluke mistake.
“I have never fallen on that [choreographic step sequence] before in my life, even though I have done bigger ones and better ones. I think I just got way too ahead of myself. I lost so much points because of that (laughs),” Ma told Figure Skaters Online after his free skate.
named Chen, Zhou and Brown to the World Team, provided the event is not cancelled. The ISU previously said they would make the decision about whether to hold Worlds at the end of January 2021. Normally, the World Championships held the year prior to an Olympic Games determines the number of Olympic spots, but with lack of international competitions and the strong possibility that Worlds will be cancelled, it remains to be seen how spots will play out for the 2022 Olympic Games.
Prior to being named to the team, Chen said at the press conference following the men’s event, “We really don’t know what is going to happen [with Worlds]. My focus will be just preparing myself for Worlds, trying to put myself in a position so that I can bring home three spots for the Olympics.”
“All we can do is train as if Worlds is going to happen,” Zhou added. “We can only progress as usual. I think we have an amazing team. I don’t doubt that we are going to get three spots for the Olympics. We are going to go home and put the pedal to the metal.”
“I hopefully can come back to Canada and then I have a two week quarantine,” Brown added. “So it is not that I’m putting Worlds on the back burner by any means, but as far as getting back to training, I have to take those two weeks. So hopefully we’ll know more about the certainty of Worlds by then.”
2020 U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi, who finished seventh place, is the first alternate for the World Championships, followed by Naumov and Camden Pulkinen, who finished in eighth place. Naumov will still need to obtain the minimum technical score to compete at the event, but it is not guaranteed that he’ll have an opportunity to do so, since many of the competitions between now and Worlds have already been cancelled due to the pandemic, including the Junior World Championships and Four Continents Championships.
For more Nationals coverage, visit our 2021 U.S. Championships Hub.