I believe my tweet was, "What the hell just happened in the last 20 minutes?" The men's free skate at the 2016 Grand Prix Final was full of twists and turns, to say the least. And the last three programs were particularly jarring; after all, we were watching the three guys who won the last six World titles - one of them had a subpar skate and the other two looked out of their element and dropped off the podium altogether. In the end, it was Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno who stole the show, so what should we make of it?
Chen makes a splash
This was exactly the kind of performance a lot of people expected Chen to have after his breakthrough skate at Nationals last season. But alas, an injury (and subsequent surgery) put him on the recovery path for most of 2016. But this free skate was a career-turning one for him, because he not only delivered, but he delivered in a field with five other of the best skaters in the world. And frankly, with the difficulty of that free skate - four quads (including lutz and flip) and six triples - I had half-expected him to not be able to skate it cleanly, at least not this season.
What that performance meant for Chen is that he's now entered the conversation. He is fully capable of putting down a free skate internationally that is near 200, and frankly, at a World Championships setting, that free skate would probably have topped 200. We know that the 200-club is very, very exclusive - only Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernandez, and Patrick Chan have exceeded 200 in their free skates internationally. He also showed earlier in the season that he's in the low 90s in the short with a double axel, meaning that a clean short with a triple axel would put him in the upper 90s. So Chen's scoring potential with two clean programs is near 300, putting him in very good company.
Don't forget about Uno
And all the focus on Chen overshadowed Shoma Uno's own accomplishment of putting down a personal best free skate. And had he skated cleanly, he would most certainly have broken 200, so this was a defining skate for Uno as well.
So is this the changing of the guard? I highly doubt it. Hanyu, Fernandez, and Chan may have all had a bad day, but this competition was certainly not a sign of them dropping off the radar anytime soon. But that's also to say that this is more of an adding to the guard. We've known all season that Uno could challenge for the World podium this season, and this competition validated it. And we now know that Chen is in the mix as well, especially since his extraordinary technical repertoire makes up enough for his relative weakness in components to keep it interesting if he skates clean or near-clean.
But that is not to say that Chen's components aren't strong in their own rights. Some will automatically equate superior jumping to poor components. And while extremely high technical prowess is often negatively correlated with strong components, it is less the case with Chen. He's shown remarkable growth this season in his skating and interpretation of music, and it's particularly apparent because you can visibly see a huge difference in the same programs between Finlandia Trophy in early October, where he debuted them, and now. Some like to compare Chen to Boyang Jin last season, but the fact is that Chen's skating this season is much stronger and more mature than Jin's last season in every way.
Hanyu delivered a nearly clean short program that saved the Grand Prix Final title for him after a subpar free skate. But Fernandez and Chan both had huge costly errors that even their short program advantages over Chen and Uno couldn't salvage. And for both of them, it was quite a shock, especially considering how they've looked this season.
Fernandez has been generally consistent in his free skates from Japan Open through his Grand Prix events, and for him to make mistakes on two quads and fall on his second triple axel was quite a surprise. Chan's quad toe has been spot on all season, but he was 0 for 2 in his free skate (one fall and one tripled). That plus two other falls just took the wind out of his sails. The good news? He landed his first quad salchow in competition - go figure.
I have full trust that all three of them will come back strong and that this competition was just an anomaly. But that's also to say that if we find Chen and Uno both on the podium in Pyeongchang 14 months from now, you'll have this competition to go back to as a turning point in the race to the Olympics.