LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nathan Chen doesn't miss.
As he has done since his last loss at the Pyeongchang Olympics — yes, nearly three years ago — the dynamic Chen was nearly perfect and rather playful in winning the short program Saturday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday.
Seeking a fifth straight national title, something no man has done since Dick Button from 1946-52 with seven, Chen put out the most difficult routine that any man anywhere attempts. He hit a quadruple lutz, triple axel and an excellent quad flip-triple toe loop combination in scoring 113.92 points.
“I’m thrilled with the short program today," said the two-time world gold medalist. "I made a couple little bobbles on the landings and wish I had skated a little bit cleaner but overall I’m really happy with the program.
“The season, this whole year, I mean last year and leading into this year, has just been crazy and everything is just so unexpected. The fact that we’re all here, that we’re all healthy, that we’re able to do this is just incredible.”
Alexa Knierim and her new partner, Brandon Frazier, won pairs in their first nationals as a team. Ice dance went to Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue for the third time.
Chen's fellow 2018 Olympian Vincent Zhou put the pressure on by nailing a quad lutz-triple toe loop combination with his arms raised above his head, a solo quad salchow and a triple axel, all as smooth as freshly swept ice.
Zhou, who skipped much of last season, benefited from that break. He also changed coaches, then finished second to Chen at Skate America in the fall; fought off some ankle and back injuries; and on Saturday looked calm, relaxed and at his peak in setting a career best at 107.79 points.
“A score like that didn’t seem like an impossibility in my head. I knew that if I got the job done I was very capable of that," Zhou said. "At the beginning of this year at a small, local competition, in Colorado, I scored 103 with a clean program. That was way before Skate America, that was way before I put all this effort into developing the quality of everything: my landings, my spins, my choreography. So I know that with that much room to grow I could definitely score a couple points higher than 103.
"But the whole year was just about not being too hard about specifically points but rather just keeping my head down and working to get myself to the point where if I skated like I did in practice, if I got my job done, then that would be very possible.”
Jason Brown, a 2014 Olympian and the 2015 U.S. champion, was third at 100.92. Brown doesn't have the jumping repertoire of Chen or Zhou, but his artistry on the ice has made him a factor on the U.S. scene for nearly a decade.
“It’s a crazy year, thrilled to be here," Brown said. “It felt great to skate and compete again. It’s been almost a whole year since getting to do that. Just thrilled with the opportunity, happy with the performance.”
Knierim rarely if ever put forth such a powerful performance with her now-retired husband Chris — and they won three national titles and an Olympic team bronze together. The way she meshed with Frazier, who won a national championship himself with Haven Denney in 2017, was particularly noteworthy.
“This is so special," Knierim said. "Of course every time you win a national championship it means something different to you. This one was extra special because it wasn’t something we expected when we first teamed up. I am kind of speechless. I’m still soaking it in.
"It feels great to win with Brandon, and to be honest I felt like Christmas out there on my part every glide of the way. I’m just feeling very fortunate; great to have two guys that support me.”
Hubbell and Donohue won their third national championship with a mesmerizingly intricate routine to “Hallelujah.” They edged defending champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who had barely beaten them in the rhythm dance.
It was that close, too: 224.56 points to 222.93.
Both couples have the look of gold medal contenders on the international stage, including at Beijing in the 2022 Olympics.
“Certainly third-time national champion has a really nice ring to it," Hubbell said. "We worked really hard this year and through all the struggles it’s been a productive year for us. Not the easiest performance tonight; we definitely had to keep just like calm and skate on. But we couldn’t be happier to be here and have accomplished this big goal.”
How happy were they? Donohue noted that “we’re wearing these masks right now but we’re smiling like a monkey with a new banana.”
Chock and Bates had not competed since February, when they won Four Continents.
“I’m just really proud of Maddy and myself for being here, for putting it out there," Bates said. “We really did a lot of great things, both performances, and I think that there are still a lot of positives we have shown, a lot of growth in our skating, a commitment to improving that we’ve continued all year long through the training without having the opportunity to compete.”
National champion Bradie Tennell and third-place finisher Karen Chen were selected for the world championships team. The federation reserves the right to choose skaters for worlds and the Olympics regardless of how they finish at nationals. Tennell won her second U.S. title Friday night; she also finished first in 2018. Tennell is also an Olympic bronze medalist in the team event at the Pyeongchang Games.
Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, was picked over Amber Glenn, whose second-place showing this year was her first podium placing at nationals. The United States has only two spots; the maximum for a country is three.
The 2021 world championships are set for March 22-28 in Stockholm. But it's uncertain if they will happen because of the coronavirus pandemic that also forced cancellation of the 2020 worlds in Montreal.
AP Sports Writers Barry Wilner and Bernie Wilson contributed.