American hope: Chen favored for Olympic figure skating gold
U.S. men’s figure skating history at the Olympics is gilded with gold.
Nathan Chen has his sights set on some more.
At 18 and already a two-time national champion, Chen is among the favorites for the Pyeongchang Games. Some say there are five reasons why: the number of quadruple jumps he has planned for the free skate. And that outrageous agenda puts him in a stratosphere to which his fellow contenders can’t soar.
There’s more to Chen, though, than the four-revolution jump that essentially has become the decider in the men’s event. He’s improved every aspect of his performance — though his triple axel can be wonky — from artistry to footwork to spins to overall presentation.
“You need the full package,” Chen said. “The jumps have come quicker than the rest for me. Maybe its innate, I have a body built to jump. I need to find a purpose in my movements, to feel the program and the music, to analyze what I was doing right and wrong. For a while, it had all been done pretty much by feel.
“Now, with the help of my coaches and choreographers, I have an understanding of each move. I have felt more passion in my skating and more of a connection to the music.”
Chen is the American with the best shot at gold in South Korea. Here’s a look at the U.S. team:
Chen has had some problems with equipment, notably his boots, and that triple axel has been bothersome. But if he nails his two quads in the short program and five in the free skate, and he gets through everything else cleanly, his prospects are excellent.
Seventeen-year-old teammate Vincent Zhou is also a quad machine, and like Chen he is improving in other areas. Still, he’s a longshot for a top-five spot.
Adam Rippon, 28, was added to the squad in place of Ross Miner after finishing fourth at nationals. A committee felt the veteran has a stronger international resume, and his flair for the dramatic in his programs goes over well with the crowds and could also land him in the top 10.
“I’ve been very consistent, and I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Rippon said. “I feel like my experience will help me have my best performances at the Olympic Games, and it feels amazing to say that.”
The Americans are outsiders for a podium spot, though their stories are nevertheless intriguing.
Bradie Tennell, who will be 20 when the Olympics begin, emerged from the shadows to win the U.S. championship. She was spot-on with everything in San Jose and seems to have, well, ice water running through her veins.
Karen Chen, the 2017 national champ, slid back for much of this season, then had a strong showing at nationals to earn a spot for Pyeongchang. The 17-year-old Chen could use some polish, yet she can be mesmerizing to watch.
America’s best chance to reach the women’s podium rests with 24-year-old Mirai Nagasu. She was fourth at the Vancouver Games eight years ago, then slumped, before rallying to finish third at the 2014 nationals — only to be bumped for Ashley Wagner by the U.S. Figure Skating committee.
Nagasu again struggled, but her resolve and resilience were on full display in early January, when she finished second to Tennell at nationals. With a triple axel in her repertoire, she has the jumping ability to vault over many other skaters.
“I decided I was going to build a resume that they couldn’t say no to,” she said.
All three American duos are formidable, though breaking into the top two ahead of the Canadian and French ice dancers might be near-impossible.
Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue broke out of their habit as “bronzemaids” by winning the U.S. championship, and their free dance not only is sultry, but complex and enchanting.
Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani have a strong resume on the international scene and a free dance filled with energy and difficulty, while Madison Chock and Evan Bates — who like the Shibutanis were on the U.S. squad at the Sochi Games — also are well-regarded internationally.
It’s possible they could finish third, fourth and fifth in any order.
“It’s wonderful how strong our ice dance teams have become,” Hubbell said. “We make each other better because of it.”
A weak spot for the U.S. for years, only one pair will be in Pyeongchang: Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim. The husband and wife aren’t regarded in the same class as the Chinese, Russian, German and Canadian duos, but they’re capable of a top-10 finish.
Regardless, they’re living the dream.
“It’s as simple,” she said, “as another blessing in our journey.”
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org