ST. PAUL, Minn. - For the United States to have any chance at Olympic or world medals in the current state of men’s figure skating, it will take a skater with the attitude of Nathan Chen.
That Chen, only 16 and still competing at the junior as well the senior level, understands the sport’s new realities was evident in his adopting a mindset allowing him to make history before a distressingly small crowd at the U.S. Championships Friday night.
If only U.S. judges had a similar level of comprehension.
A month after winning the Junior Grand Prix final, Chen became the first not only to land but even to attempt two quadruple jumps in a short program at nationals.
“At least something interesting for U.S. skating,” said Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian.
It still was not good enough in the judges’ minds to beat quad-less programs by Adam Rippon, 26, and Ross Miner, who turns 25 Sunday. Neither has a chance ever to become a world medalist, as evidenced by finishes of 6, 13 and 8 for Rippon in past worlds and 11 and 14 for Miner.
Max Aaron, who nailed a quad-triple combination in a strong short program, barely beat Miner, 91.83 to 90.90, a ridiculously close outcome. Rippon had 88.01 to 86.33 for Chen. The free skate final is Sunday.
“It is a good message for figure skating: `Guys, don’t jump quads,’’’ Arutunian said, in deadpan sarcasm.
Yes, one of Chen’s quads had a flawed landing, and yes, he made a big mistake on a spin. But he did exactly what U.S. Figure Skating president Samuel Auxier said would be necessary for the country to produce a champion who might breathe some life into a sport on its deathbed as a spectator attraction.
"We have to have men and women that are at the top of the world rankings to really attract attention to the sport," Auxier said. "I'm a judge as well. I judge internationally, and I'm a little bit scared at the progress other countries have made. We have to catch up."
Part of that, Auxier said, is not only allowing but encouraging skaters to begin working on quads when they are younger.
Yet the reigning U.S. champion, Jason Brown, 21, sidelined by a back injury, did not try his first quad in competition until last year, and he never has landed one. Brown still can get consideration for one of the three spots on the 2016 world team.
Last year’s runner-up, Rippon, gambled on a quad lutz in his short program a year ago but played it safe with all triples Friday.
That simply won’t cut it against current skaters like Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, Javier Fernandez of Spain and Patrick Chan of Canada – not to mention the next generation, which is Chen’s.
International judges have begun to look at a short program quad as de rigueur. Without one, you are a horse-and-buggy skater in an era when the sport is making supersonic advances.
Sure, Miner and Rippon are aesthetically pleasing skaters, but so are the five guys in the previous paragraph – even more so, truth be told.
“Guys (at worlds) will be flying by them with quads and quads and quads,” Arutunian said. “Do you think they will be comfortable doing triple axels?”
Chen, who never previously had attempted two quads in a short program at any event, knew the risk for trying is substantial but the reward is reaching a level of technical difficulty that will allow him to compete on even terms – or have an advantage - against that world elite.
Quads are worth too many points to do without them.
“I’m trying to set myself up as a senior skater, and this is a step,” Chen said. “Hanyu is a huge role model for me. I hope to be eventually what he is now.”
Hanyu did five clean quads (two short, three long) in both the Grand Prix Final and the NHK Trophy this season. Fernandez was credited with three (one poorly executed) in the long program at the Final. China’s Jin Boyang was credited with four in his long program there (three clean).
“I’m physically capable of doing two quads and three quads in the short and the long, respectively,” Chen said. “Now is the perfect time to try it, when I’m still young. When I get older, it’s going to be harder.”
And he also had the presence of mind to make a quick shift in the planned program when the first quad, a salchow, did not come off as smoothly as he expected.
A wonky landing on the salchow meant he could not follow it with the planned triple toe loop to make the combination required in the short program. So Chen tacked that triple onto his next quad, a toe loop, executing the combination brilliantly and racking up 16.46 points.
“All of my programs, I have a bunch of different variations if anything goes wrong, so I don’t have to think while I’m doing the program,” Chen said. “I knew I had to do a combo, and I couldn’t do a combo after the (triple) axel (his last planned jump, which has to be a solo jump.)”
Chen began both practicing and attempting quads at age 14. He has worked up to them and then maintained them by making his triple jumps high and powerful enough to make a fourth turn seem hardly revolutionary.
“As soon as I went for them, I basically could do it,” he said.
So Chen said there is no relation between practicing quads and the series of niggling injuries – knee, shoulder, foot hip – that have beset him.
“Even the past two years, I haven’t (practiced) them too much,” Chen said. “All my injuries over the past few years are just related to my growth plates. As soon as (the growth plates) close, I’ll be completely healthy.”
Chen said he is two heads taller than he was a couple years ago. He is head and shoulders above the quad-less skaters whom the judges placed ahead of him Friday.
“If he goes to any international event, it would not be embarrassing to send him there,” Arutunian said.
The same cannot be said for the way U.S. men have skated at the major global events since Evan Lysacek won the Olympics in 2010. None has won a medal at Olympics, worlds or the Grand Prix Final after that. The United States has not even had a men’s qualifier for the Grand Prix Final since 2011.
Could the message be any clearer?