Team USA’s Vincent Zhou is halfway to his first Grand Prix title.
The American vaulted to the lead over pre-event favourite and teammate Nathan Chen to finish first after the men’s short program at Skate America on Friday (22 October) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I’m on the right path,” Zhou said after Friday's short program, setting up what could be a tense affair for Saturday's free skate as Chen tries to haul himself back into podium position.
The three-time and reigning world champion fell on his opening quadruple Lutz and failed to complete a combination in his short, dropping him to fourth place. While Zhou (97.43) leads, PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma (89.07) is in second place, followed by another American, Jimmy Ma (84.52), in third.
Chen (82.89) sits in fourth place.
Chen has not lost since the Olympics in 2018 at any event, and is the four-time and defending champion at this event, too, having won in 2017, 2018, 2019 and last year, the latter being held under strict Covid-19 protocols and with no fans.
“Clearly it wasn’t great tonight,” Chen told reporters after his short program. He's won 10 consecutive international competitions since 2018. “But it’s the first competition of the year. I need to think about what went wrong and try again tomorrow. I'm human and I'm going to make mistakes”
Earlier in the evening, the Russian pairs teams of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (80.36) and Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii (75.43) finished first and second, respectively, with the Japanese duo of Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi (72.63), fresh off winning the ISU Challenger Autumn Classic event in Montreal last month, rounding out the top three.
Friday night in Vegas: Zhou wows, Chen sputters
With a strong performance in Friday night's short program, Zhou, who was third at the World Championships in 2019, continues the momentum he began at the Nebelhorn Trophy ISU Challenger event last month, when he secured the U.S. a third men's spot for the upcoming Beijing Games.
"Who would have expected that I would be sitting in the middle tonight?" Zhou, the surprise leader, said to reporters, a nod to his seat at the press conference table as the top-performing man: “My performances have been pretty consistent so far and I hope to keep that going.”
Skating to "Vincent" for the second season in a row, the 20-year-old opened with a monstrous quad Lutz-triple toe combo that earned him 19.31 points, then tacked on a quad Salchow and triple Axel as he skated with purpose and passion.
Seven months ago he failed to make the free skate at worlds, part of the reason he was sent to Nebelhorn last month to secure the third U.S. spot for Beijing.
"I thought I did a good job tonight performing the program and showing some of the great things that we've been doing in training," he said, then adding: "I can skate even better. This is just another building block"
Chen, meanwhile, will have to come from behind to try and earn a fifth consecutive Skate America title. No skater in any discipline has won five in a row at the American Grand Prix. (See more below.)
He went down on his opening Lutz but appeared to regain his composure midway through his "Eternity" short program, which in its second half has a nod to his 2017-18 Olympic season short program.
He hit a triple Axel, but then stumbled on the landing of his quad flip, a jump which he needed a combination on and didn't get it. Because of that, his score tumbled.
Sato Shun, the Japanese teen, is just two points back of Chen in fifth, at 80.52.
Uno rebounded from a quad flip turned into a double in his short to rally for second place, while Ma, a fan favourite who at times has shown flashes of brilliance - was brilliant. His 84.52 was a whopping 10 points higher than his previous personal best, a 73.21 at the U.S. Classic in 2018.
Russians rule the ice in pairs
The Russian duo of Tarasova/Morozov raced to the front of the pack after a winning routine in the pairs short program earlier on Friday evening.
The team scored a 80.36, five points north of the second-place duo, with their W.E. soundtrack short, earning a level four for their triple twist, buoyed by a 2.66 positive GOE. They opened their program with side-by-side triple toe loops, and later hit a throw triple loop - all with positive GOEs to bolster their 43.27 technical score, the best of the evening.
“We skated quite well, but this is only just a first step on what is our most important goal of the season: the Olympic Games,” said Tarasova of the pairs-leading team. "We’ll keep going step by step. The audience here was great tonight."
Miura/Kihara were delighted after their short, celebrating on the ice and then embracing as their score came over the loud speaker inside the arena.
Americans Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson skated directly after the Japanese and were equally as jazzed about their performance, which put them in fourth with a 68.87 - within striking distance of the podium. Reigning U.S. champs Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier are fifth with a 66.37.
Skate America: Day 1 in the books
This year’s Skate America, an annual event held at various venues in the U.S. since the inaugural competition in Lake Placid in 1979 (and won by Sarajevo 1984 Olympic gold medal winner Scott Hamilton), continues Saturday with the rhythm dance and women’s short program in the afternoon, followed by the pairs and men’s free skate in the evening (local time).
Action culminates on Sunday (24 October) with the free dance and women’s free skate.
The aforementioned drive for five in a row for Chen would be historic, but it's another American skater who has the most Skate America wins all-time.
The legendary two-time Olympic medallist Michelle Kwan came closest to winning five in a row, with an astonishing seven Skate America titles overall between 1995 and 2002, but she never managed to win five golds on the bounce – Russia’s Maria Butyrskaya interrupting her streak with a sizzling performance in Detroit in 1998.
Meanwhile, the next stop on the six-event Grand Prix Series is Skate Canada (29 & 30 October, Vancouver) with the Series pointing toward the fall season finale, the Grand Prix Final, from 9 to 12 December in Osaka, Japan.
Skaters will then head to their respective national competitions to try and secure berths for Beijing 2022.