So Nathan Chen had a couple of bad days at Skate America last week.
He wasn’t about to hit the panic button, he said. His long winning streak, back to the 2018 Olympics, was bound to end sometime, he said. However, the three-time world champion got back into the saddle at Skate Canada on Friday, and rediscovered that rare zone that he usually finds himself in and made amends in the men’s short program.
He won it, handily, with 106.72 points, buoyed by a quad Lutz that he had missed at Skate America, and ended up 12.72 points ahead of Jason Brown, who had no quads at all. Still, with Brown’s extraordinary gifts on the blade, he finished with 94.00, just ahead of Keegan Messing with 93.28.
Several weeks ago, at Finlandia Trophy, Brown and Messing had finished in a tie for first with 92.39 points in the short program, but Messing had won the short, because of his higher technical mark. However, Messing finished only fourth overall after the free, in which he was seventh.
The Canadian, who has never won a national title in this country, was a different person on Friday in Vancouver. There was the new haircut. (He looked like a woolly bear at Finlandia Trophy.) The new slick costume. And then there was that look.
When Messing started to move in the opening moments of his short program at Skate Canada International, a little smirk played across his face. And you just knew you were going to be in for an interesting ride.
There was a decided difference about his body language, from Finlandia Trophy. Messing said he felt as if “his feet were floating on the ice.”
“After Finland, I definitely found what I was lacking,” he said. “I think with the new baby [He became a father last July with wife Lane], I had gotten a little distracted on the amount of work that I was actually putting in on the ice, but I was also having some slight skate issues. Nothing big, just foot pain stuff.
“What I didn’t realize that having a little bit of foot pain was causing me to hold back on some of my on-ice training. And I found that I was weaker than I thought I was out there. So from Finlandia, we’ve upped the training. We had that reminder of who is out there and why we were doing this, and now I’m ready to push for the final season.”
In the kiss and cry, he took out his cell phone and pushed a photo of his wife holding his won to the camera.
Messing skated to new short-program music: “Never Tear Us Apart,” an INXS song. His choreographer, Lance Vipond, loves INXS, and really wanted Messing to skate to it. But it just didn’t have the right feel for what they wanted to do. Messing did a little research and found Joe Cocker’s version and fell in love with it. “The program came together quite easily,” Messing said. “We’ve been working for quite a while now, and it just snowballed and we ended up really loving the finished product of it.”
He fired off a quadruple toe loop – triple toe loop without a hitch. It was his big money maker: he earned 3.12 bonus points for it. Messing also held onto a triple Axel, and did a big split into a triple Lutz. His spins were fast and deft. A standing ovation followed. Judges gave him component marks as high as 9.25.
Most of all, he had a crowd to play to. Skate Canada, with its cautious approach to the pandemic, had cancelled many events, starting with the world championships in 2020 in Montreal. For the first time in Vancouver, it allowed spectators, only about 1,000. It made all of the difference.
During the pandemic, Messing has been training alone in Alaska. But that was nothing new for him. “But the lack of competition definitely took its toll,” he said. “I definitely missed competition. I love skating with these excellent skaters….Losing that in early season and the mid-season, it was definitely hard to keep the motivation factor. So I was relying very heavily on memories of how excellent these guys are, honestly and who was out there, so I was able to push stronger and harder.”
When the pandemic shut everything down, Messing made an ice rink in his back yard and put on his hockey skates to do cardio. “It’s one of the best ways to keep my cardio up,” he said. There are pictures somewhere of Messing with his COVID beard freezing solid with ice.
“It was quite a journey, but we’re just trying to stay positive,” he said.
Messing said he was overjoyed to have an audience back.
Chen was happy about it too. “It was really awesome to have an audience and people supporting as the program goes on.”
After two tough skates at Skate America, Chen said he was happy to get another chance to replay his short program. There was a tight turnaround between the two competitions, but it worked in his favour. He was glad he didn’t have to wait another few weeks to try again, and put the past behind him sooner.
“I find anytime in practice or in competition, when you don’t do well, at least for me, I want another opportunity to try and be successful.” He said. “I’m really thrilled I have this opportunity right off the bat.”
Chen came to Canada early, and arrived on Monday to train with Canadian athletes. It was always his plan, regardless of his exploits at Skate America.
“They’re really good skaters and it was nice to have the training environment. They skate really fast, so it was nice to have that little push,” Chen said.
It wasn’t that Chen needed to buck up his confidence. “I think from past experience, the first couple of competitions, I’ve never been perfect,” he said. “I’ve never been peaking at my first couple of competitions. I’m not saying I should not be. That’s on me. Every time I skate, I’m supposed to be skating well.”
But he was not in a place where he told himself: “Oh I’m going to go downhill from here,” he said. “It’s a progression. There are going to be good days. There are going to be bad days. I’m just trying to do what I’m currently doing, try to stay as present as I possibly can and really that’s the only way. If I start thinking too far ahead or worrying, I’m going to lose sight of what I have to do.”
Still, while accomplishing a very good quad Lutz at the start of his program, Chen ditched a quad flip for a quad triple toe loop in combination with a triple toe loop. It came in the second half of his program to “Eternity” and “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine. It was all he needed for now. The easier combo still earned him 17.92 points. All of his non-jump elements were rated level fours.
Jason Brown had a very slightly higher component mark by .18 points. The difference in their technical mark was profound: Chen had 60.29 points for technique while Brown had 47.39. That doesn’t mean Brown’s technique in what he did was inferior; he just lacked the power jumps. His strengths still are a weapon.
Brown brought back his “Sinnerman” routine, a classic, for this Olympic season. And it was better than ever. He’s been tweaking it further. How can you possibly make something like that better?
Brown says he always tries to better himself every time he steps on the ice, so it was a “no-brainer” for him to go back to Chicago in the off-season and work with choreographer Rohene Ward to make it better yet.
“I knew he wanted it to be a two-year process,” Brown said. “He had big aspirations of what it could be. But at the same time, it was one of those programs where he knew I needed to go through certain steps to gain my confidence and then keep moulding it and keep changing it.”
He added options, changing the pattern of the opening triple flip to perhaps add a quad there. He feels stronger at this point in this season, compared to the same point last season.
Brown is in his third Olympic cycle. He learned from the first two “how important it was to stay present in each moment, and take them as they come. Because they can definitely spiral out of control.
“How important it is to stay very focused. I think that’s what I tried to do today. I’m super excited to get out there and start the Grand Prix season.”
Young Russian Makar Ignatov finished fourth, but earned the second highest technical mark, especially after he landed a rare quad loop (with a short setup) to open his routine to “Iron Sky.” The 21-year-old, who debuted that quad loop last year in the domestic Cup of Russia series, surprised many when he finished second to Mikhail Kolyada at his nationals last season.
On Friday in Vancouver, he also landed a quad toe loop – triple toe loop, and got big bonus marks for his first two jumping elements. He finished with 89.79 points. He fought for the landing of a triple Axel.
Conrad Orzel finished ninth (73.19) with a quad Salchow, but he stumbled in the midst of a quad toe loop – triple toe loop combination. Canadian champion Roman Sadovsky was tenth with 72.94 with a better quad Salchow, although he underrotated a triple Axel and fell, and did turns between his triple Lutz – double toe loop combo. His spins were exquisite as was his skating.