I am already running out of ways to describe the wonders of Nathan Chen, so I will let someone else do the heavy lifting this morning.
That would be Mark Hanretty, the Eurosport commentator and former ice dancer who skated for Great Britain in the world and European championships.
Hanretty’s background makes his observations of Chen’s brilliant Four Continents short program more meaningful. A dancer would have a keen eye for the parts of Chen’s skating that factor into his “second mark,” the PCS, on which the judges still find him significantly below his major rivals.
First, the facts: With a quad lutz-triple toe combination and a quad flip, Chen won Friday’s short program in Gangneung, South Korea, with a score, 103.12, that topped his previous personal best by nearly 10 points. Shoma Uno (two quads) was second at 100.28, also a personal best, with Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan (botched second quad) third at 97.04.
The free skate is Sunday.
This is what Hanretty said while waiting for the scores to be announced:
“The jumps are coming from nowhere. He has the whole package. He has beautiful posture, wonderfully pointed extension, nice spin positions.”
Hanretty’s comment that the jumps are coming from nowhere means Chen is not telegraphing them or using enormous amounts of time to set them up. The remarks about posture, extension and spin positions are self-explanatory.
For all that, Chen’s PCS score (43.54) still lagged those of Hanyu (46.93), Canada’s Patrick Chan (45.76) and Uno (44.21). He barely beat those of compatriot Jason Brown (43.0), who did not try a quad, fell on a triple axel and apparently looked splendid while finishing ninth – nearly 23 points behind Chen.
(How the judges think you can look nice and get full base value for a jump while playing human Zamboni is something that continues to drive me crazy, but that’s a subject for another day.)
The good thing about Chen’s PCS score is it was less than a point below what he received at the U.S. Championships. At nationals in every country, judges are traditionally much more generous with marks. And his overall score was just 3.27 below that from nationals, even though his triple axel landing Friday was far from smooth.
“It’s reaffirming to be able to come out with that score at an international competition,” Chen said.
It is fair to say Chen lacks the refinement of reigning Olympic champion Hanyu, three-time world champion Chan of Canada (fifth at 88.46 after falling on his quad and slopping up an impromptu combination) and Uno, as well as reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, whose country is not on the four continents (Americas, Africa, Asia, Oceania) eligible for the eponymous competition. PCS scores will ensure Chen cannot yet beat Hanyu and Fernandez if all three skate clean in both programs at next month’s World Championships.
Yet Chen’s technical scores are so big that if he skates clean, the others cannot afford much of a mistake.
“Is he now becoming the favorite for the OIympic title?” Hanretty asked on air. “You have to suspect his development trajectory is going to be exponentially greater than the likes of Hanyu and Chan.”
Ice is slippery, and there is no guarantee Chen can be clean again in the Four Continents free skate.
Yet his consistency, beginning with the free skate at the Grand Prix final, has been stunning. Chen has landed 13 straight clean quadruple jumps, including the record five in the free skate at nationals. His grade-of-execution marks for those quads, where the maximum is 3.0, have all been positive: 2.0, 1.29, 1.0, .71, 1.0, 1.14, 1.71, 2.0, 1.57, 2.0, 1.14, 1.71, .23.
The best part is Chen keeps pushing the envelope. He said Friday the probable plan was to try five quads again in the free skate but “things can always change.” Given that he will be last on the ice in the free skate, Chen and his coach, Rafael Arutunian, might decide a mere four quads is a better strategy if Hanyu and Uno are not flawless.
And Chen had a wobble in his closing position of the short program that suggested exhaustion.
It is easy to forget this is the first senior international season for the 17-year-old from Salt Lake City. He has shown a prodigious talent for several years, but injuries have held him back until this season.
“I definitely do need to focus a lot on making sure that I recover well enough and I don’t put too much strain on the body so I don’t get injured by the time more competitions come around,” Chen said. “I have really good resources and we’ve developed a really good plan leading up to Worlds and next season. I’m just hoping everything goes as planned.”
If it does, we all may run out of ways to describe him.