Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

With in-person fans replaced by cardboard cutouts — the GEICO gecko had a first-round seat to all of this week’s action — and press conferences over Zoom, the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships looked very different than those of years past. 

Yet one thing was the same as it has been, every year since 2017: Nathan Chen ’23, United States champion.

The two-time reigning world champion returned this weekend to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, to defend his title as the four-time reigning champion at this year’s national championship. With a dominant total score of 322.28, Chen claimed his fifth consecutive U.S. championship this weekend. He became the first male skater to win five or more U.S. titles in a row since the legendary Dick Button, who won seven straight from 1946 to 1952. The 2019 World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou earned this weekend’s silver medal with a score of 291.38, and 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown took bronze, scoring 276.92 points.

“It’s incredible to be able to try and follow in [Button’s] footsteps,” Chen said after his win on Sunday afternoon. “It’s something that I’ll truly cherish.”

Chen remains undefeated since finishing fifth at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics — a streak that now extends to 12 competitions. He has finished in first place in 23 of the 24 programs he has skated during this stretch.

The Orleans Arena that housed this weekend’s competition also served as the site for 2020 Skate America this past October, where Chen and Zhou were the event’s gold and silver medalists, respectively. Zhou acknowledged that he felt “a little more comfortable” being in a familiar setting.

For Brown however, the U.S. National Championships marked his season debut, as he was set to begin his season at 2020 Skate Canada before it was canceled due to the pandemic.

“I just tried my best to rely on twenty years of competing,” Brown said when asked how he prepared for his first competition in 11 months. “It’s kind of like riding a bike in a way.”

In the short program portion of the competition on Saturday, Zhou skated with the first group and received a score of 107.79 in a breathtaking performance to Josh Groban’s “Starry, Starry Night” that vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard and applied pressure on Chen to respond.

Vincent Zhou earned the silver medal with a score of 291.38, and his strong short performance to Josh Groban’s “Starry, Starry Night” on Saturday applied pressure on Chen to respond. (Photos: Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating)

Chen did not disappoint, scoring a whopping 113.93 in his short program — featuring music from the 1995 film “Desperado” — heading into Sunday in first place.

“I was aware of what he did,” Chen said during his Saturday press conference when asked if he was aware of Zhou’s exceptional score before heading onto the ice himself. “Ultimately, I can’t really control what other skaters do, and I can only try to do the very best that I can.”

Fans watching the broadcast on NBC were quick to notice Chen turning to a different sport while warming up before skating: basketball. Chen said that he has incorporated dribbling a basketball into his warm-up regimen over the past two years.

“It’s something that makes me happy,” Chen said. “It lets me think about other things rather than hyper-thinking about skating.”

On Sunday, Chen skated third-to-last, allowing him to set the bar high for fellow title contenders Zhou and Brown, who skated afterward.

And set the bar high he did — Chen completed an astronomical five quad jumps on his way to a score of 208.36 in the free skate, putting him on top of the leaderboard for good. Although Chen had a wobbly landing on his first jump, a quadruple lutz, he followed with an immaculate quadruple flip-triple toe combination, easing himself back into a stellar free skate.

Attempting five quad jumps in the program was a “game-time decision,” according to Chen. He told the NBC audience before his Sunday free skate performance that if his body felt good during warmups, he would go for it.

Chen skated to a medley of Philip Glass’s songs in his free skate, a decision he revealed was inspired by a Yale course, MUSI 175: Listening to Music. (Photos: Courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating)

Chen skated to a medley of American composer Philip Glass’s songs in his free skate, a decision he revealed was inspired by a Yale course, MUSI 175: Listening to Music, which first introduced him to Glass.

“I thought his music was really interesting,” Chen said. “I liked the repetitiveness of it, how simple the core structures are, and yet there’s so much rhythm, so much musicality that comes out of something that’s so simple.”

Later Sunday evening, U.S. Figure Skating announced that Chen, along with Brown and Zhou, were selected to compete at the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm.

As Chen looks ahead to the upcoming world championships, as well as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, he refuses to rest content with his current skating.

 “I always want to be better,” Chen said. “This program wasn’t perfect. I still have a lot more I can continue working on and improving. I’m happy with where I am, happy with how I skated, [but] there’s still a lot to do.”

The 2021 World Figure Skating Championships are scheduled to take place March 22-28 in Stockholm, Sweden.

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu

Maria Antonia Sendas | mariaantonia.henriquessendas@yale.edu 

JAMES RICHARDSON
James Richardson covers men's basketball, squash and athletic administration. Originally from South Florida, he is a first year in Jonathan Edwards College.
MARIA ANTONIA SENDAS