EVERETT — Nathan Chen stood at the center of the ice at Angel of the Winds Arena, bowing to each corner as the crowd, standing in ovation, roared its appreciation while pelting the ice with stuffed animals.
Everyone in the building knew they’d just witnessed greatness.
The reigning U.S. and world champion reached heights no other competitor in the field could hope to reach, even had they performed a quad jump off a 10-foot ladder, as he skated away with the gold medal in the men’s competition at Skate America on Saturday afternoon.
In the International Skating Union’s first Grand Prix of Figure Skating event of the season, Chen blew the field away with an elegant and expressive free skate in which he also nailed all his jumps. Chen finished with an overall score of 280.57, which was more than 40 points ahead of the nearest competition.
”I’m happy with today’s skate,” The 19-year-old from Salt Lake City said. “It definitely was a lot of improvement from the last competition, and that’s really my goal throughout the season, to keep on improving from competition to competition. The program in terms of quad numbers was definitely watered down. But in terms of where I am in the season right now, it’s definitely perfect.”
The pairs competition was also decided Saturday, with Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov claiming the gold medal comfortably.
Chen debuted his free skate two weeks earlier at the Japan Open and had an uncharacteristic performance, falling three times on quad jump attempts to finish fourth in a six-man field.
But Chen looked confident and in control throughout Saturday’s routine, set to “Land of All” by Woodkid. He landed three quad jumps, the last two of which were in combination and took place during the second half of the program. By the time his program was winding down the crowd was already cheering.
What makes Chen’s achievement all the more incredible is that he’s juggling his figure skating with being a freshman at Yale.
“I definitely think I achieved my goal, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Chen, who added that despite his celebrity he’s been treated like any other student on campus. “Considering having such a new step in life with college, I’m getting good training time now, but having the extra stress from school I think it’s the right move for me to take a little step back in terms of technical elements, do something I knew I was confidently capable of doing versus adding quads. Yes, I can (add quads), but it takes away from my confidence a little bit and takes away from my performance, and I think those are all things that are really important this year.”
Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic skated a clean program to capture the silver medal. He followed up his second-place performance in the short program with another second-place performance in the free skate, finishing with a score of 239.51. It was Brezina’s first medal at a Grand Prix since finishing third at the Rostelecom Cup in 2014.
Russia’s Sergei Voronov captured the bronze with a score of 226.44.
American Vincent Zhou, who was sixth at the 2018 Olympics, placed third in Saturday’s free skate. However, hindered by a puzzlingly-low score in Friday’s short program, he had to settle for fifth at 225.75.
In the pairs competition, heavy favorites Tarasova and Morozov lapped the field. Although they had two small bobbles during their free skate, which was set to “The Winter” by Balmorhea, their artistry, the precision of their skating and the height on their throws were at a level above. They won the free skate by more than 16 points with a score of 133.61, and their overall score of 204.85 far outdistanced the silver-medal team of fellow Russians Alisa Efimova and Alexander Korovin, who earned the silver with a score of 178.98.
“Today we skated a little better than we did yesterday and from our last competition,” Tarasova said. “I feel today the program was good.”
Taking the bronze was the American pair of Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc. Cain and LeDuc were in fourth place following the short program. However, they finished second in the free skate with a nearly clean program, with Cain giving a guttural scream of triumph when the program ended. It was their first ever medal in a Grand Prix.
“After our short program we were really bummed,” Cain said. “We knew we weren’t far from the podium, but we knew our performance was not good. So even though our long program wasn’t perfect, we conquered so much more than that. We conquered our own fears, we went out there and we were strong together.”
Reigning U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who were fifth after the short program, finished just off the podium in fourth, and immediately following their program they announced they parted ways with their coach Aljona Savchenko.
Danny Neudecker, who got his start with the Seattle Skating Club in Mountlake Terrace, and his partner Nica Digerness finished in sixth. The pair, who won the 2017 junior national title, finished with a career-best score of 151.21.
The evening session featured the ladies short program and rhythm dance.
In the ladies competition, the Japanese trio of Sakoto Miyahara, Kaori Sakamoto and Marin Honda stole the show. Miyahara, the 2018 world bronze medalist, skated a flawless program to score a 73.86 and edge Sakomoto, who also skated a perfect program and received a 71.29. Russian Sofia Samodurova was the only skater who could prevent a Japanese sweep of the top three, placing third at 64.41, while Honda was fourth at 62.74.
Reigning U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell popped the second jump of her jump combo and had to settle for fifth at 61.72.
In the ice dance competition, all competitors are required to perform a tango in their rhythm dance this year. Reigning U.S. national champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue turned in a captivating performance — with just one slight humorous mistake when on the finishing pose Hubbell’s pretend kiss on a kneeling Donohue was a tad aggressive, causing Donohue to lose his balance — and took the lead with a score of 78.43 despite a two-point deduction. Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri were second at 75.01. Russia’s Tiffani Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro were third at 73.30.
The ladies and ice dance medals will be determined Sunday.