Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

“Nathan Chen wins once again.”

As NBC Sports commentator Terry Gannon sent the broadcast to commercial, a familiar outcome greeted figure skating fans across the country: Nathan Chen ’23 winning gold. 

The four-time U.S. champion began the 2020-21 figure skating season atop the podium last weekend at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, winning 2020 Skate America with a total score of 299.15. Vincent Zhou scored 275.10 to earn the silver medal, and Keegan Messing rounded out the podium in third place with 266.42 points. 

“It feels great,” Chen said about being back on competitive ice. “I think that we were expecting nothing to happen this season, so the fact that we were even given an opportunity to do something like [Skate America] was great.”

To a medley of music from the 1995 film “Desperado,” Chen skated to the tune of 111.17 points in the short program, a personal best score that missed Yuzuru Hanyu’s February 2020 world record by a mere 0.65 points. Chen landed both quad jumps he attempted in a mistake-free program that gave him a comfortable lead going into the free skate.

Before the score was even announced, Gannon knew what he had just witnessed as Chen skated off the ice.

“He is simply the best skater in the world, and it’s an absolute privilege to watch him skate every time he takes the ice,” Gannon said.

Chen took first, flanked by Vincent Zhou (left) in second and Keegan Messing (right) in third. (Photo: Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating)

In the free skate, skating to a selection of pieces from American composer Phillip Glass, Chen was not as spotless, making two errors over the course of the four-minute-and-10-second program. He popped a planned quadruple salchow early in his skate, only completing two revolutions, and he also popped his final jump — originally planned to be a triple axel — resulting in a single axel.

Chen said that he was disappointed in himself for making the mistakes, but noted that he has learned where he needs to improve his technique.

“Honestly, in practice, stuff like this happens, and I think it’s a great learning experience to be able to make mistakes [and then] try to compose yourself so you’re able to continue the program,” Chen said.

His overall performance in the free skate was so dominant, however, that his score of 187.98 was still the best score in the free skate by 12.24 points, leading to his 24.05-point overall margin of victory for the competition. Chen landed three out of his four planned quad jumps, including one in a dazzling quad toe-euler-triple flip combination that earned him over 20 points in the technical score alone. 

Finding himself on top of the podium has become a common occurrence for Chen in recent years. He is now tied with Todd Eldredge, who won gold at Skate America from 1994 to 1997, for most consecutive wins on the men’s side of the Grand Prix competition. Chen also has not lost an individual event since finishing fifth at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics — a streak that includes two world championships.

As Chen sets his sights on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, he knows he must continue to improve. Figure skating analyst Jackie Wong noted that Chen’s programs this year are much more intricate than in years past.

“[Chen is] incorporating his jumps into his programs with more detail and musicality … which is a positive step for him going into the Olympic season,” Wong said. 

Wong also added that, while Chen’s mistakes in the free skate were “surprising,” it was more indicative of “how difficult the content he’s putting out is.”

Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada hosted Skate America. (Photo: Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating)

Chen’s longtime friend Mariah Bell won gold on the women’s side of the competition, scoring 212.73 points — edging out second-place finisher and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell by a slim 1.66 point margin. Bell shared with the News how exciting it was to return to competition. 

“I noticed how much I missed the nerves of competing, so it was fun to kind of have that feeling again,” Bell said.

Bell’s short program — to the song “Glitter in the Air” by P!nk — was choreographed by former Olympian and 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, and she skated to a medley of ABBA songs in the free skate in a program choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, who also worked with Chen on his programs this year. Bell and Chen train at the same rink in Southern California and share a coach.

Unlike Chen, this was Bell’s first time on top of the podium at a top-level senior competition. Yet the precision that Bell skated with this past weekend demonstrated that she does not intend for it to be her last.

“Mariah is somebody I would call a ‘skater’s skater’,” two-time Olympian and NBC commentator Johnny Weir explained during last weekend’s broadcast. “She does everything well — the total package.”

Weir’s praises were not limited to Bell, though.

After Chen’s assertive short program performance, Weir made it clear to viewers that he believes Chen will be a force to be reckoned with at the next Winter Olympics.

“If this competition was about making a statement, Nathan Chen definitely just said ‘Beijing 2022 — it’s mine,’” Weir said.

Skate America is one of six events in the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, excluding the Grand Prix Final. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition was limited to American athletes and other athletes who train in America.

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu

Trisha Nguyen | trisha.nguyen@yale.edu