LAKE PLACID, N.Y.
Nathan Chen has a beautific head of hair. Charcoal black curls sproinging out of his scalp like the crazy curves you encounter on a Lake Placid road. And what a ride he takes those curls on: up death-defying quads here, around some new fascinating body movement there. Heavens, even pair skater Eric Radford says he feels like he’s watching an artist now.
Chen says his mother cuts his hair. But it grows fast.
What a trip we’ve seen so far from the 17-year-old Chen so far at Skate America. He takes all the bumpy roads with this intelligent calm. He speaks that way. You get the feeling that this young American can take all the trials by fire that he will get in the coming months.
Chen has a whopping lead after the men’s short proram, scoring a personal best of 104.12, exactly a point more than his previous best. And he wasn’t perfect. His landing on the triple Axel was a bit wonky. It cost him a few bits. But his thundering quad Lutz-triple toe loop alone gave him 19.90 points. Judges were handing out +2s for a formidable move like that.
All this and Chen had to pause in the warmup to push his leg up over the boards. From his bag of tricks, Arutunian pulled a sharpening stone, spent a few seconds running it up and down the upraised blade and back Chen went, working his magic. Arutunian fluttered about backstage, giving the blade some more elbow grease. Chen said there had been a nick on his blade, and he’ll have it perfect for the long.
For the long program today, he’ll unleash a new quad combination, a quad toe loop-half loop-triple Salchow. He says he just wants to top what he did at Cup of Russia, where he had troubles with his triple Axel – his least favourite jump – in both the short and long programs, and finished second to Yuzuru Hanyu in the short program. But he won the free and the gold over the Olympic champion. (Remember the kiss and cry in Russia, with emotional coach Rafael Arutunian shaking Chen like a leaf, saying: “We won! We won!” Chen remaining stoic through it all. Perhaps a smile.)
The cast of characters in the men’s event didn’t end there. Adam Rippon finished second, about 15 points behind his teammate, with 30-year-old Sergei Voronov of Russia third at 87.51, losing a few points on his triple Lutz, but not his quad toe loop – triple toe loop comb, from which he raked in 16.31 points. And the crowd cheered. You could see their faces, smiling at this supposedly over-the-hill Russian who had probably all but been tossed to the faceless heap in his country, as it has been scurrying to replace the iconic Evgeny Plushenko.
Of course, Rippon is a vaudeville show all on his own. A quote machine for a reporter.
He has made a seamless comeback from a Jan 6 accident that caused him to withdraw from the 2017 U.S. championships and miss the worlds, too. During practice, he had sprained his left ankle and fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. (Evgenia Medvedeva’s injury? If so, don’t expect to see her for a while.)
Rippon dazzled. It wasn’t just the clean non-quad trip he took; it was his delivery. He’s himself on the ice. And Himself is fun and fascinating.
“If you’re 28 and not having fun, girl, get out of Lake Placid,” he said. “Do something else.”
On the subject of his time away from all of this fun, he said: “I want to say that it was tough, but I really want to say it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I remember sitting and looking out a window and being really dramatic and saying: ‘This is my comeback story and I can come back even stronger. ‘I think that time away made me realize how lucky I was to be able to be doing what I was doing.”
He appreciates where he is now. He’s grateful. He says it’s made him a better person and a better athlete.
And the one-two finish of he and Chen at Skate America? At least so far? “I think we make a good team,” Rippon said. “I think we’d make an even better Olympic team.”
The comeback isn’t just about his foot. He and Chen were practicing together a month before his first event at Finlandia. Rippon was cheekily copying Chen’s choreography. But he hit one of his quad Lutz holes in the ice and tripped. He instinctively threw out his hands to brace the fall and dislocated a shoulder. That’s why we are not seeing the Rippon Lutz these days, in which he puts both arms above his head.
It has forced him to work more on his quad, he said.
“Listen, the road is filled with bumps,” Rippon said. “You’ve got to take the punches.”
He kept the short program from the previous year and the free, too. “Girl, I’m getting my money’s worth,” he said. “I only skated it three times.”
Even so, when he was skating them, he knew they were his Olympic programs. When he broke his foot, he knew there was an opportunity to use them this year, too.
He had originally asked Jeff Buttle to choreograph a new short program for this season, and he wanted to do something original and very much a part of himself. So the music he uses includes his own voice, singing a cover of Rhianna’s “Diamond,” “I wanted something that would really embody who I was and show me as a whole rounded person,” he said.
“But ironically, I feel like this trashy dance club program embodies me better than even my own voice could. So sometimes actions do speak louder than words.”
He turned that discarded short program routine into an exhibition program at the NHK Trophy, where he finished second. However, instead of skating it, he grabbed a microphone and sang. It wasn’t bad.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said Friday. “But it wasn’t too good, either. It was my first time singing in front of everybody. My first time singing in front of anybody was in front of 10,000 people. So you know what? It’s all right.”
He said he has been told that he’d better skate that routine this week in exhibitions, and not just sing.
And Rippon did something in the 6-minute short program warmup that nobody ever does. He left the ice after five minutes.
“I just felt comfortable, confident,” he said. “When I got to the five minute point in the warmup, I just kind of got off. I just felt ready. I felt in the ice, in my own body and ready to go. I told Rafael, who said: ‘Don’t scare me tomorrow.’”
He won’t do it for the free, but he admits it was a dream of his. “Give me those guards,” he said. “I’m going to beat the rush. There won’t be any traffic. I’ll get right to my spot so I can start focusing for my performance.”
And it worked.
There’s every chance that Rippon could actually qualify for the Grand Prix Final. If he does, he said it will be another check on the criteria to get to the Olympics.
So yes, there was a cast of characters, and it wasn’t only the top three men. Daniel Samohin of Israel finished fifth with 82.28 points, although he fell on a quad Salchow. But for a couple of years, he’s been a human Zamboni in practices and competitions. He’s taken extreme punishment in falls. You could do a news reel of all his falls, as somebody has already done with Anna Pogorilaya falls. Nobody know why he hasn’t been more seriously hurt.
But in the short program, we saw another side. “My practices are usually like that,” said the gregarious skater. “Don’t get me wrong. My practices are always up and down. So the fact that I couldn’t do a jump or whatever else is not really my issue. I was trying to focus on the transitions and footwork so I really need to check the levels on that. That was our goal.”
He said he doesn’t know why he fell on the quad Salchow. Perhaps he lacked a little confidence. As he went up into the air, he was fine and then he thought: “Oh my god, I’m landing it. And I let go.”
At Rostelecom Cup, he had a far worse result, but he didn’t blame himself. He was ill. In fact, he says he’s still coughing from that virus. In the short program in Russia, he earned only 62.02 points (20 points less than here) and was last of 12. He was last of 12 in the free, too, after three falls. He wasn’t really bummed out about it. He once got marks as high as 82 or 83 at a European championship a couple of years ago.
He knows what he’s capable of, he says. And he just has to be patient and “work through my tough time.” And indeed, he has had rough times.
In the free this week, he plans two quad toes and a quad Salchow. And two triple Axels. Buckle your seatbelts when Samohin skates.
“And it made me appreciateaand ithing
LAKE PLACID, N.Y.