Reigning U.S., world champion charms crowd at Skate America

Nathan Chen took a commanding lead after the men’s short program at Angel of the Winds Arena.

Ashley Cain and Timothy Leduc perform a triple twist loop during the pairs short program at the 2018 Skate America competition Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. The 2018 Skate America is the first event in the 2018 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ashley Cain and Timothy Leduc perform a triple twist loop during the pairs short program at the 2018 Skate America competition Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. The 2018 Skate America is the first event in the 2018 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

EVERETT — Nathan Chen has already shown he can conquer the figure skating world. Now he’s determined to prove he can do it while mastering the Ivy League in the process.

So far Chen is off to a good start.

The reigning men’s U.S. and world champion provided the highlight of the first day at Skate America, winning the men’s short program Friday night at Angel of the Winds Arena.

Chen, who is juggling being a freshman at Yale with his figure skating, debuted his new short program in winning fashion, scoring a 90.58 to take a substantial lead in heading into Saturday’s free skate.

The pairs short program was also held Friday, with the heavily-favored Russian duo of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov winning as expected.

Chen, with his charmingly tousled hair, was the clear fan favorite. But he made a mistake early in his program set to “Caravan” by Duke Ellington when he had to step out of his quad flip and was unable to combo it with a triple toe loop as originally planned. However, Chen improvised by adding the toe loop to a triple Lutz later in his program to give him his combination points.

“I think that was a good start to my season,” Chen said. “It was the first short program of the season since I did Worlds last year. It definitely wasn’t the best in terms of all the technical elements. But the performance I think was pretty good and the audience was amazing, so there’s a lot to build off of.”

Chen’s schoolwork is complicating his training as his coach, Rafael Arutunian is based 3,000 miles away in southern California.

“It’s fun, actually,” Chen said about managing classes and training. “It’s something totally new for me. Of course I did schooling, but that was online programs so it’s definitely not on the same level as I’m doing now. But it’s great to be in a completely new atmosphere. I’ve been in California for the past six years or so, and of course I was training with the best skaters. But it’s great to be able to step a little bit away from it and focus a little more on what’s going to come after my skating career.”

In second was the Czech Republic’s Michal Brezina, who overcame singling his planned triple flip to score an 82.09. Malaysian figure skating trailblazer Julian Zhi Jie Yee — the first skater from his country to reach the Olympics — had what he described as “the short program of my life,” and was in third at 81.52.

The most puzzling score was given to American Vincent Zhou. He nailed his quad Lutz-triple toe loop combination en route to what seemed like a clean performance, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. However, he had a puzzled look on his face after he was given a score of 76.38 as the judges ruled he under-rotated his jumps.

In the pairs short program Tarasova and Morozov, who finished second at the 2018 World Championships and fourth at the 2018 Olympics, outclassed a field that looked rusty as it competed in its first major competition of the season.

Tarasova and Morozov, performing to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good), didn’t skate a perfect program as Tarasova had to put a hand on the ice on the landing of their side-by-side triple toe loops. However, they were mostly clean the rest of the way and finished with a score of 71.24, which gave them a lead of nearly nine points heading into Saturday’s free skate.

“We made some small mistakes,” Morozov said. “It was difficult today, but we feel good, we like our program. We just need to keep working hard on the short program and skate clean in future programs.”

Fellow Russians Alisa Efimova and Alexander Korovin were a distant second after posting a score of 62.38. Germans Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert scored a short program personal best of 60.04 to sit in third.

The top American teams, expected to be medal contenders, struggled with their short programs. The duos of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, the reigning U.S. national champions, and Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, the 2018 national runners up, both had multiple issues with their programs. Cain and LeDuc were fourth at 57.72 after LeDuc fell on his triple loop and Cain had to step out of the landing on their throw triple Lutz. The Knierim husband and wife pair was fifth at 57.31 after she nearly fell on their triple Salchow, and then she stumbled at the beginning of their step sequence.

The men’s and pairs free skates take place during Saturday’s afternoon session that begins at 1:15 p.m. The ladies short program and rhythm dance take place during the evening session that begins at 7:15 p.m.

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