The past few seasons of men's skating have brought some unforgettable performances, and we just got another one on Sunday. Nathan Chen made history by becoming the first person ever to land five clean quads in one program and obliterated the competition to win his first U.S. title. It was the second time in two competitions where Chen has skated a clean free skate, and it's all the more incredible once you factor in the technical content that he brings to the table.
The fifth quad
Ever since Chen debuted his quad lutz and quad flip at Golden West in last September, the buzz has been about where those jumps could take him and whether he could even come close to skating clean programs.
Lo and behold.
The Grand Prix Final was a revelation, because Chen not only skated a clean free skate there, but he also proved that he could compete with the very best in the world. Only Javier Fernandez and Yuzuru Hanyu have scored higher in the free skate internationally this season. And had Chen skated his Nationals program at Grand Prix Final, he would have over taken both of them for the top free skate score of the season. Of course, Fernandez left a few points on the table at Rostelecom and Hanyu didn't skate cleanly at NHK, so the comparison isn't apples-to-apples. But the potential is there.
The difference between the two programs? That fifth quad. Chen replaced his triple loop with the quad salchow and added six points to his base value. He now has the two most difficult programs being performed by anyone, ever. And he does it with very solid components. Are they the level of a Hanyu or a Fernandez? Not yet, but he's closing in. But his technical advantage could make up for it.
So the thing about Nathan Chen is that he is a solid medal contender at Worlds. A repeat of these two performances in Helsinki two months from now will almost certainly put him on the World podium. The hype is definitely real.
What happened with those invalid jumps?
A quick IJS lesson that three skaters had to deal with in the men's free skate was that you can only repeat a maximum of TWO triple and/or quadruple jumps. Tomoki Hiwatashi repeated the quad toe and the triple lutz already before he did a second triple flip, which got invalidated. Similarly, Grant Hochstein repeated the quad toe and the triple axel before he did a second triple lutz, which got invalidated. Vincent Zhou tripled his opening quad lutz, which caused his planned triple lutz at the end to be a repeat. And since he repeated the quad salchow and the triple axel already, his second lutz was invalidated.
Hochstein felt the biggest sting of these invalidations, because he lost an entire jumping pass and was fourth behind Jason Brown by less than six points. The hardest jump he could have done in place of that triple lutz was a triple toe, which would have been worth 4.73 in base value. A well-executed triple toe, well, could have made the difference between third and fourth and changed the whole dynamic of the World team selection.
It is important to note that Hochstein's free skate planned elements had him repeating three triple and/or quadruple jumps. Now, he has been tripling his second quad all season (except at Nationals), and that could have been the reason for the lineup. But it was an error in technicality that should have been prevented.
Brown pulls it out
Was Brown's selection to the World team the right call? According to the Worlds selection criteria, I did believe he had the edge over Zhou, even though Brown finished one spot lower than Zhou did.
Had Brown finished fourth or lower, however, it may have been a different story. But because of Zhou's lack of senior international resume, it would have been risky to put him on the team, especially given that he still needed another competition to have the minimum technical scores for Worlds (and Four Continents could not be that competition because he doesn't have the minimums there either).
The rules were changed this season to require skaters to achieve the minimums at a senior ISU event, whereas you could gain them in junior ISU events in seasons past. So with Zhou only having one senior international under his belt - and he withdrew due to injury after the short program - he needs another senior international for the minimums. And without the exposure of a major senior international like Four Continents, it would have been much riskier to put him on the World team.
But much of the credit goes to Brown, who came in with question marks because he was dealing with an injury that took him out of training until just a few days before Nationals started. As it turned out, he only needed time - Brown looked stronger and stronger each day, and by the time Sunday came around, he was hitting the triple axel to everyone's surprise. In fact, as late as Saturday, he was debating whether or not to just stick to one triple axel in his free skate.
And so the combination of the axel returning to Brown, Hochstein getting his second lutz invalidated, Ross Miner having a rough free skate, and Max Aaron burying his chances after a disastrous short program made it much easier choice for the committee.
With Brown and Chen heading to Helsinki, our trajectory for the three spots for Pyeongchang are looking up.