Nathan Chen did it again.
The 22-year-old Salt Lake City native scored a 115.39 in the men' short program – and broke his own national record.
Skating to “La Boheme,” Chen landed a four Lutz and three-toe combination for a staggering 20-plus points. It was the highest-scoring element in the entire competition.
“Lutz has been a little tricky for me this season, so I’m really happy that I was able to put it out, especially the second half … Overall, I’m happy with the way that I skated.”
“Is he superhuman?” commentator Tara Lipinski said immediately after Chen's performance concluded. “I don’t understand this, it’s so crazy how he keeps pushing the technical level at this point in his career.”
“Absolutely brilliant,” said commentator Johnny Weir. “This is the message he needs to send out to the world ahead of the Olympics … The two quads in this short program are the most difficult quads anyone has ever landed, and he combined them with the artistry and beauty that he’s known for.”
Vincent Zhou, widely considered the second-best U.S. figure skater and last year's silver medalist at nationals, also executed an impressive routine during the night’s concluding performance. Skating to Josh Groban’s cover of “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” Zhou earned an impressive 112.78 points.
There are three Olympic berths available for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and Chen and Zhou are well on their way to punching their tickets.
As expected, the fight for third was intense.
Just the second performance of the night, Virginia's 17-year-old Ilia Malinin skated the best short of his life to a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean:” His surprising routine was fast, sharp and clean – and earned 103.46 points.
"He has improved so much since last season, but I was impressed by him then," Lipinski said. "I knew this kid was going to be the face of the future. If Nathan is Batman, this is Robin."
A confident, energetic Jason Brown took to the ice early. Also favored for a podium position, he entered to loud applause and left to a standing ovation. Brown opened with a triple flip and landed a clean triple Axel, but his program didn’t quite have the technical aspiration of other skaters.
“That was a piece of art come to life,” said Lipinski, emphasizing his “off-the-charts” grades of execution. “The complexity in every move that he makes, the difficult transitions in and out of those of jumps … The way that he’s found a passageway to beat the scoring system is in the component score.” He initially took second place with 100.84 points, but ended in fourth place.
Jimmy Ma placed a distant fifth with 91.62 points.
Similar to how the ice dance competition's first half ended, the free skate now comes down to two battles: Zhou versus Chen, and Malinin versus Brown. The latter will determine who earns the final podium spot – and, potentially, an Olympic berth.
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are headed to the Olympics. Who will join them?
The battle for two Olympic pair berths boiled down to Cain-Gribble and LeDuc versus Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson versus ... a potential appeals process from Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, following Frazier's positive COVID test.
Cain-Gribble/LeDuc arrived at the pairs free event with 79.39 points in the bank, while last year's silver medalists Calalang /Johnson trailed with 77.48. Both teams broke the previous national short program record during Thursday's skate.
On Saturday evening, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc performed their routine second-to-last. Though not without a three-point error caused by a missed rotation, their focused performance contained some beautiful moments: A Throw 3 Salchow was particularly impressive due to its precision and speed. The free skate earned 145.84 points, for a 225.23 total.
"I don't have a lot of words," Cain-Gribble said after competition ended. "It's just crazy ... We have visualized this moment so many times, and to finally have done a performance like that -- and the whole week, the way it went -- honestly, it's surreal. It feels, right now, just a whole weight has been lifted, and we're so grateful."
"I can't help but think of all the people that have helped us get here, and who have helped us over the years across our whole journey."
Calalang/Johnson went last. Their performance contained a string of errors, although the side-by-side loops were a particular highlight. The free skate earned 132.29, for a combined total of 209.87 -- and another silver medal.
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, whose short program trailed a distant third with 68.11 points, earned a 191.54 total. The duo may not make it to the 2022 Winter Olympics, but they earned national bronze.
With their win, Leduc will likely become the first nonbinary Winter Olympian. But the official announcement as to who makes 2022 Olympic pairs team arrives tomorrow at 9:30am.
They didn't win the free, but ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates held enough of a lead from the rhythm dance to take the national title with a 227.37-point total. As commentator Terry Gannon said following their performance: "You don't have to completely understand it, you just have to sit back and enjoy it."
For Chock/Bates, gold at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships gives them momentum headed into the 2022 Winter Olympics -- and evens the score with friendly rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, whose 225.59-point total earned them second place. Each duo now owns three national titles.
Hubbell/Donohue -- who are set to retire after the upcoming Games -- found themselves behind the eight ball following their rhythm dance, where they scored 2.55 points shy of Chock/Bates. But their free dance, set to Anna Sila's "Drowning," was close to flawless.
After over more than a decade skating together, Hubbell/Donohue finished their last skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in tears, each falling to one knee. They waved goodbye to an ecstatic crowd, having earned a 136.20-point free dance -- the highest-scoring free performance of the night.
Just outside the spotlight, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker kicked off the evening with an out-of-this-world performance. Though they started in fourth place after their rhythm dance, their fiery routine rocketed them to a 205.68-point total, which commanded the leaderboard until the very end of the night. The dance also likely earned them a spot at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The official announcement for Olympic berths will take place on Sunday, January 9 at 10:30 am.