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Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Vincent Zhou star in men’s short program

Nathan Chen was in first place after the men’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Nathan Chen was in first place after the men’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — The only time Adam Rippon stumbled Thursday night was when he skated back to center ice to thank the crowd, which was showering him with flowers and stuffed animals after the best short program of his uncommonly lengthy senior career.

Rippon is 28, far older than the man who leads after the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Nathan Chen, and half a decade older than the man in third, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown.

But it was Rippon who created one of those once-in-four-years moments born only of the Olympic pressure cooker, turning in a stunning performance in the short program that left him second entering Saturday's free skate — one strong showing away from his first Olympic team after a decade spent building toward that dream.

"This was the first step I needed to take to having that amazing comeback I felt like I was going to have," Rippon said. "I'm really proud of what I was able to do today. I stayed focused on every single element."

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Brown said he fed off the energy Rippon created. They'll skate back-to-back in the final group of Saturday's decisive free skate, too. So great is Chen's dominance that he was something of an afterthought. The 18-year-old, who is pushing into uncharted American territory with five quads in his free skate, was the only undefeated male skater in the world this season. Thursday, he debuted black costume designed specifically for him by Vera Wang. Chen skated what he called a "watered down," safer short program Thursday night, and didn't land all his jumps cleanly. He finished the night in first place anyway, the only man to score higher than 100.

But Chen is a given, so much so that while the men's field contained five clear-cut contenders for three Olympic spots, it effectively contained four contenders for the two spots not going to Chen. Three of the other four — Rippon, Brown and Vincent Zhou — skated like the Olympic contenders they are as less-talked about members of the field turned in a handful of impressive performances that momentarily argued against foregone conclusions.

Zhou, perhaps the only American who can keep up with Chen in the air, landed two quads before slipping on the much easier triple axel. But quads provide points, and Zhou's earned him a score of 89.02, the second-best score of the day at the time. Rippon and Brown, less talented jumpers than Zhou, beat that score. Chen blew it away.

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Like Zhou, Chen nailed the more difficult quads before slipping out of his triple axel, betraying moments of tentativeness. But like Zhou, the error did not overpower the mastery. Chen is the most natural technical talent the Americans have and gave no reason to doubt that he will represent them in South Korea.

But the question of who will join him grew more complicated when former U.S. champions Rippon and Brown skated. While Zhou and Chen can load programs with quads, piling up points and risk, Rippon and Brown represent the more artistic side of men's figure skating. Neither has an arsenal loaded with quads. Both have experience, expression and consistency. Both would be on the podium — and likely the Olympic team — if the competition ended on this day.

Brown's beloved skate to the "Hamilton" soundtrack was not perfect, but it was good enough for third. He could not best Rippon, who shone with a spunky program that included a finger wag feet from the judges' table. He drew whoops from the crowd at nearly every move. He nailed his three required jumps. In the penultimate program of his final Olympic push, Rippon simply shone.

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"Here I am. I gave myself a chance, and I'm taking it," said Rippon, who considered quitting the sport four years ago. Then he paused.

"Wow," he deadpanned. "That was good."

Personality like that is what allows Rippon to steal hearts, even as he does not claim the air like so many of his younger competitors. Rippon did not include a quad in his short program. He didn't need it and earned a second-place score of 96.52 for his convincing argument that the little things still matter and that artistry and performance still have a place in this sport. Rippon had never earned a short program score that high. He has never made an Olympic team, either. Even at the ripe figure skating age of 28, there still may be a first time for everything.

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