ST. PAUL, Minn, -- U.S. Figure Skating officials finally got the message.
They rewarded a history-making performance by Nathan Chen with a place on the U.S. team for this year’s senior World Championships.
It would have been better if their judges also gave the 16-year-old Chen the scores he deserved at the national meet that ended Sunday, but sending him to worlds is a step in the right direction for an organization stuck in a talent-development rut.
Naming Chen, third at these nationals behind Adam Rippon and Max Aaron, meant denying the petition for a world spot by Jason Brown, the country’s leading men’s skater over the previous two seasons.
Brown, sidelined since November by a back injury, had a decent case based on figure skating rules that allow consideration of recent results in team selection. Someone clearly made the better case (these decisions are never explained) that sending to worlds a skater in questionable physical condition who never has landed a quadruple jump was not a good idea.
Score one for common sense.
Because a quadruple jump score of 6-0 over Rippon should have put Chen in a position that would have made the world team decision a no-brainer: only the champion is guaranteed a spot.
In sports like baseball or hockey, 6-0 would be considered a rout. There would be no doubt about who was the champion.
In figure skating, though, the numbers often don’t add up.
Otherwise, how would it figure that a young man who landed the six quads, three to start jump combinations, and who also skated more than respectably when he wasn’t jumping could have lost the U.S. Championship to a skater who did not land a single quad, falling on his only attempt?
Rippon became the second straight U.S. champion to win without a fully credited quad during an era when the world’s best men toss them off in their sleep and skate beautifully at the same time.
Chen’s six fully credited quads included two in the short program, which no U.S. man ever previously had done, and four in the free skate, which no U.S. man ever previously had done. Aaron managed two in the free skate after one in the short, and you can make the argument he too should have beaten Rippon.
The absurdity of this could have been avoided if the judges had been more forgiving with their component scores for Chen, which were just sixth best in the free skate.
Those scores cost Chen both the title and second place. Thankfully, he still gets a chance to gain needed competitive experience against the best men in the world two years from the next Olympics.
“He who starts there sooner, gets there sooner,” said Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Chen and Rippon.
Two weeks before Chen, of Salt Lake City, becomes one of the youngest U.S. men ever to skate at senior worlds, he will finish his junior career by competing at the junior world meet in Hungary.
“This is an awesome step for me as a senior skater,” Chen said. “Throughout the season I've only been putting myself up as a junior skater, and I'm glad that I was able to show what I'm capable of as a senior skater.”
Maturity always is a factor in component scores. But they are highly subjective and often used to prop up skaters based on past reputation, as they did for Rippon, usually a sparkling performer, after his thoroughly unremarkable short program.
No one would suggest Chen, 16, should have beaten Rippon, 26, in that area for the free skate. But giving him component scores nine points lower than those of Rippon and nearly four points lower than those of Aaron was ridiculous and almost short-sighted.
“This young man did four quads, which is a big step forward,” Arutunian said. “Hopefully a message would be sent that this is the future of figure skating for us.”
The message, instead, was partly same old, same old, which is why the U.S. men have not won a medal in a global competition since Evan Lysacek’s quad-less Olympic victory in 2010.
“Maybe they (the judges) are thinking back to Evan,” Arutunian said.
It was pointed out the sport had moved 1,000 years forward on the jumping side since then.
“Maybe not everyone understands that,” Arutunian said.
Rippon certainly does. After winning his first U.S. title, he did not hesitate to agree with the premise that no one will win a world medal without a quad.
“I think what Nathan did is amazing and incredible,” Rippon said. “I think the talent in the U.S. men's skating is there. Nathan is doing four quads, Vincent Zhou (15) is trying two. It's there for the future, but right now, in the present, I wanted to show the best that I could do today.”
Figure skating is, to be sure, more than jumping. But the goal is to win international medals, and there is a technical baseline necessary to do that. At 26, with finishes of 6, 13 and 8 in his previous worlds, Rippon is unlikely to get there.
“I feel that to make a well-rounded competition, it takes all sorts of competitors,” Rippon said. “I feel that there is room for everybody.”
Yes, Chen made mistakes, including a fall on his triple Axel. Yes, his spins need work. But he has something unique, something U.S. men’s skating never has had before, something that made being in the room to witness to it a once-in-a-lifetime delight.