San Jose, Calif. — A downer of a practice led to some soaring skating and jumping for Nathan Chen.
Chen made it look easy on the ice and in the standings Thursday night, running away with the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. His winning performance came one day after “my mind was not in the right place.”
Pretty much everything was in the right place when it needed to be.
The defending champion and America’s best hope for an Olympic gold medal next month at the Pyeongchang Games, the 18-year-old Chen spun his usual quad magic, hitting two of the four-rotation jumps, one in competition. His energy lit up the SAP Center, and though his triple axel was funky, Chen earned 104.45 points.
That’s territory none of his countrymen can reach.
“I try to just make sure that I’m in my zone every competition,” he said. “I’ll always get nervous regardless of how big or small the competition is. I definitely feel the energy is different than last year (being an Olympic year). Ultimately, I have to do what I set out to do and focus on my new goals.”
Coming closest to Chen was veteran Adam Rippon, who had a career-best 96.52.
“I am waiting for my day of reckoning, which is Saturday,” Rippon said. “It’s the one-year anniversary of breaking my foot. I am here for that drama and … I told myself I was going to give every single individual element my total focus, and I did that.”
Jason Brown, a 2014 team bronze medalist at the Sochi Olympics, was third heading to Saturday’s free skate at 93.23.
Grant Hochstein put on the performance of his life, nailing every element to wind up fourth at 92.18. Hochstein included a quadruple toe loop-triple toe at the outset. His spins were precise, his footwork smooth, and by the conclusion of his 2-minute, 40-second routine, he’d drawn the first standing ovation of the competition.
When his 92.18 shattered his previous best short program by nearly 11 points, the crowd roared again.
Rippon, at 28 the oldest entry in the men’s event, radiated energy all over the rink, particularly with his expressive footwork and spins. With the crowd clapping along to the 2016 national champion’s every move, Rippon was ecstatic even before he saw his 96.52 score.
Brown didn’t need a quad because of his classical body lines, speed and solid interpretation of his music, “The Room Where It Happens,” from “Hamilton.” One of the more popular American skaters, Brown’s high marks drew a loud ovation to end the night.
“I had a blast out there,” Brown said. “It was really cool skating after Adam, the crowd was so insane and I was able to feed off that energy.”
Vincent Zhou, the only American who comes close to the stratosphere Chen works in, leaped above the sideboards for his quad lutz-triple toe loop to open a difficult program. He also did a quad flip, only to crash on the triple axel — hardly an easy jump, of course.
The 17-year-old Zhou looked anguished when he saw an 89.02 for fifth place. Afterward, however, he expressed pleasure with the evening.
“I gave a good performance out there,” Zhou said. “I did a nice quad. Triple axel was a really stupid mistake. I just got kind of way into the program, I had too good of a flow, so I stepped really far over to the left. But other than that I think it was great.”
Three-time U.S runner-up Ross Miner, another veteran of the ice wars, also came through with a top-notch showing. But lacking a quad, his 88.91 got him sixth place.
Earlier, Chris Knierim and wife Alexa Scimeca-Knierim won the short program for pairs.
When he stumbled just before a key element in their short program, Chris Knierim didn’t lose his perspective. While talking about it, he didn’t lose his sense of humor.
“She tried to trip me,” he joked.
“It was a pretty close call,” his wife said. “I cut a hole in his pants. I did nick it.”
They also stood atop the field heading into Saturday’s free skate for the one pairs spot the United States gets at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Both quickly recovered from his misstep for a throw triple flip that they pulled off superbly. The rest of their program was not perfect — Chris stepped out a side-by-side triple salchow — but it was good enough for 71.10 points. Much of that was built on a huge triple twist lift to open the program.
“We had two mistakes, little ones, but we were just happy to be back at the U.S. championships and it was a really good event,” Alexa said.
The 2015 national champions who have battled injuries the last two years were 2.17 points ahead of Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea. With 67.84 points were Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay, a 2014 Sochi Olympian with a different partner.
U.S. Figure Skating Championships
When: Through Sunday
Where: SAP Center, San Jose, Calif.
Friday: Dance short, 4 p.m., NBCSN; ladies free, 8 p.m., NBC
Saturday: Pairs free, 4 p.m., men’s free, 8 p.m., NBC
Sunday: Dance free, 3 p.m., NBC