U.S. Championships preview: Nathan Chen goes for historic five-peat

The American is favoured to win his fifth straight national title as other disciplines are up for grabs in Las Vegas, where the competition will happen without fans.

By Nick McCarvel

Is this the week Nathan Chen goes five for five?

The American figure skater and two-time world champ is heavily favoured in the men’s field at the U.S. Championships, set to begin Thursday (14 January) in Las Vegas at the same venue that held October’s Skate America and in the same scenario – without fans in attendance.

Not since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button won seven (seven!) in a row from 1946-52 has an American man done the five-peat, though last year Chen joined Olympic champs Brian Boitano (1985-88), Scott Hamilton (81-84), David Jenkins (57-60), and Hayes Alan Jenkins (53-56) as four-peat champions since World War II. Olympic bronze medallist Charles Tickner also won four straight, from 1977-80.

To say he’d be joining rare company is the truest of statements. In singles, Michelle Kwan is the most recent five-peat champ in the U.S., winning eight in a row from 1998-2005.

Fellow Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown will look to join Chen on the podium, as they did last year, while the next-gen crop is led by 2019 world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi.

Here, a preview of the action to come, which gets underway on Thursday evening local time. TV times are here for American fans. The event is being held in a strict COVID-safe bubble, with athletes and officials under careful protocols.

On Monday (11 January), Skate Canada announced it was cancelling its national championships, which had been delayed to start in February.

Chen-pion again? Nathan chases history

In what has been a disrupted and turbulent season, Chen has returned to his training base in California, taking a leave from his studies at Yale University. He was the runaway victor at Skate America in October, beating a mostly American field that also featured Canada’s Keegan Messing.

It was there that Chen won by 24 over Zhou, who was second, though he had two miscues on jumps in his free skate. He told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview after his win that Beijing 2022 continued to be the “driving force” in his career.

He’s won 11 straight competitions since finishing fifth at PyeongChang 2018. Zhou will no doubt press Chen, as will Brown, who missed out on Skate America as he remained in his training city of Toronto.

Zhou recently told Olympic Channel that he has medal aspirations for the coming Winter Games, but also that he has appreciated putting in the hard work during a challenging training period: I'm relishing the process of working for it all. I don't expect a(n Olympic) medal to be handed out to me. I expect to have to work for it. And I'm 100 percent committed to that process and willing to take on the challenges.”

Brown, who has yet to formally announce his programs for the season, teased fans on Monday (11 Jan.) with a video clip of him skating to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.”

Bell, Tennell headed for showdown

While 15-year-old Alysa Liu is the reigning and two-time national champion in the ladies’ event, it is the more veteran skaters in 2018 Olympian and former national champ Bradie Tennell, as well as reigning Skate America winner Mariah Bell, who should battle it out for the top spot on the podium.

Liu has struggled in practice maintaining the quad jumps and triple Axel that made her the youngest winner for the U.S. women since Tara Lipinski (1997).

She told NBC Sports last week that a three-inch growth spurt and injury had hampered her jumping progress. “[Jumping] was extra difficult because I grew and also had an injury.”

Tennell, after switching to coach Tom Zakrajsek to start the season, has said she is working on a triple Axel, though it’s not clear if she’ll try the jump in Las Vegas. Bell continues to shine in the program component (artistic) marks, so all eyes will be on her technical content, as well.

U.S. champ in 2017, Olympian Karen Chen has looked sharp of late, finishing fourth at Skate America, the same event where 16-year-old Audrey Shin, who placed seventh at the Youth Olympic Games last January, had her breakout performance to claim bronze, cementing herself as one to watch moving forward.

There are no givens in a field that also features Amber Glenn, Starr Andrews, Hanna Harrell, and 2014 Olympic team bronze medallist Gracie Gold.

Knierim/Frazier aim for continued success

In the pairs event, a different team could skate away as national champs for the fifth time in six seasons as the new duo of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier were the top finishers at Skate America.

They would be first-time winners together at nationals, though each skater is a former U.S. champ, having just teamed up in April of 2020. Knierim formerly skated with her husband, Chris Knierim, while Frazier was paired with Haven Denney.

Knierim/Frazier train alongside Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who had a breakout 2019-20 season and won the silver at Skate America in October. The two teams are coached by two-time Olympians Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in Southern California.

“We do a great job of separating friendship from competitiveness,” said Knierim of the training setup. “Our coaches, they write the plan and they keep everything individualized from one (team to the next). So, we feel like we're being taken care of what we need for that day. But at the same time, our competitors are also getting what they need. It’s a healthy dynamic because you see them skate and it pushes you to do your program, run it a little bit better.”

Also in the pairs running: 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, as well as Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, who won the bronze at Skate America. Former U.S. champs Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew from the event, the two announcing an end to their partnership last month.

Dance: Training partners square off

While competing against one another is still a new dynamic for Knierim/Frazier and Calalang/Johnson, it is near old habit for the top two ice dance teams, with Olympians Madison Chock and Evan Bates the reigning U.S. champions and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue two-time winners themselves.

Both duos are based in Montreal as part of an academy that features four-time world champs Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, but Chock/Bates haven’t seen competitive ice since winning at Four Continents last February, opting out of Skate America due to interrupted training time.

Hubbell/Donohue captured their third consecutive Skate America in Chock/Bates’ absence, setting up what could be a razor-thin showdown this coming weekend. Chock/Bates will need to tap into their bevvy of experience as two-time Olympians to be near their best, having not competed in so long.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will be favoured to land on the podium with the top two squads, while another team to watch includes Caroline Green and Michael Parsons. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, who placed fourth last year at nationals, withdrew after revealing they’d come in contact with a person who had tested positive for COVID-19.

What happens in Vegas...

Stays in Vegas? That’s how the saying goes, but eyes from around the figure skating world will be fixed on the city for the weekend, especially in light of Canada cancelling its national championships.

While normally the U.S. Championships feature as an important stop for Americans to book their spots for the world championships – three places in the men’s discipline, two in ladies, two in pairs and three in dance – the international event is uncertain to go on.

Last month Swedish skating officials cancelled all remaining domestic competitions for the sport, but that did not include worlds. The organizing committee had previously said it was working hand in hand with the International Skating Union to move the event forward.