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Column: Nathan Chen wins his sixth national title at U.S. figure skating championships

Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate program.
Nathan Chen competes in the men’s free skate program during the U.S. figure skating championships in Nashville on Sunday.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Jason Brown’s nomination to the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics was a firm vote for artistry and the “skating” part of figure skating, though it’s unlikely Brown will win a medal in a sport that values showy quadruple jumps over the nuanced beauty he creates with every step and spin.

On Sunday, the final day of the U.S. championships, the committee charged with nominating three men for the Beijing singles competition was handed one easy decision. They nailed the landing. Nathan Chen, who won his sixth straight U.S. title despite falling twice during his free skate to a medley of Elton John songs, was given the chance to improve on his fifth-place finish at the 2018 Olympics. The competition between Chen and two-time defending gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan should be a highlight of the Winter Games.

“Yuzuru is constantly pushing the sport forward in his own way,” Chen said. “Long before I even competed against him, he was sort of that benchmark for what an exceptional figure skater should be.”

After Chen, who earned a two-day total of 328.01 points, the selection process became complicated.

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Brown fell on the only quadruple jump he attempted but received high marks for his skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation of the music from “Schindler’s List.” He finished fourth, with 289.78 points. Vincent Zhou, second after the short program, experienced a meltdown in his free skate and underrotated many of his jumps, dropping him to third with 290.16 points. And 17-year-old Ilia Malinin announced his arrival by delivering an eye-popping four-quad effort Sunday to finish second with 302.48 points.

Malinin, whose parents were skaters in Uzbekistan, can jump with the world’s best. Yet the selection committee, which considered the body of each skaters’ work, went with the experience of Zhou, who finished sixth at the 2018 Games, and Brown, 27, who placed ninth in 2014. “I think Team USA has all its bases covered with us three,” Zhou said.

The U.S. Olympic figure skating pairs and ice dance nominees were announced Sunday, including U.S. ice dance champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, said Malinin is “certainly the future of U.S. figure skating,” but agreed with the decision. “I think that all three of us up here over the past two years have really showed why we deserved this spot,” Chen said during a news conference at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

Malinin was designated the first alternate, a crucial role given the continuing impact of COVID-19. Brown’s coach, Tracy Wilson, who traveled with him from Toronto, missed his performance Sunday after she tested positive and had to isolate; pair skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from their competition after he tested positive, but they successfully petitioned for an Olympic nomination.

Knierim finished 14th at the Pyeongchang Olympics with her husband, Chris. When he ended his competitive career and became a coach, she teamed with Frazier, who remained in COVID isolation Sunday. “I believe the best is yet to come,” she said. “We were so ready and prepared to compete here this week. It was devastating for us but obviously right now we’re on cloud nine.”

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who on Saturday won their second U.S. pairs title, got the other nomination in a discipline that has been frustrating for Americans. Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, who won bronze in 1988, are the last U.S. pair to win an Olympic medal. The last American pair to medal at the world championships was Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman with a bronze in 2002. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc were ninth at the 2019 and 2021 world championships.

“I feel like each competition this season we’ve been getting better and better,” said LeDuc, who will be the first non-binary athlete to compete in the Winter Games. “We still have room to grow.”

The selections in ice dance Sunday went as expected. Madison Chock of Redondo Beach and Evan Bates, who won their third national title Saturday, were nominated to the team. So were runners-up Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue — who finished fourth at the 2018 Olympics — and third-place U.S. finishers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. This will be Chock‘s and Bates’ third Olympics as a duo. He competed in the 2010 Games with a different partner. “It never gets old. It’s special each time,” Bates said.

National champion Mariah Bell will be joined by Karen Chen and Alysa Liu on the U.S. figure skating team competing at the Beijing Olympics.

Brown knows the feeling. After missing the 2018 Olympic team, he switched coaches and moved to Toronto to train with a group that was joined by two-time Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia. The first day Brown drove her to the rink she put a Beijing Olympics sticker on his car. He still looks at it for inspiration.

“I knew that there was more in me that I wanted to achieve and I knew I could grow more as an athlete and an artist and I was determined to see that through,” he said.

He has. For that, a triple jump for joy is more than enough.

Elliott reported remotely from Los Angeles.


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