The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nathan Chen secures first at U.S. nationals. Chaos reigns in his wake.

Nathan Chen reacts after his performance during the men's free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose on Saturday night.
Nathan Chen reacts after his performance during the men's free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose on Saturday night. (Ben Margot/AP)
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SAN JOSE — On a night that devolved quickly into pre-Olympic chaos, the surest of American figure skating things — a skateboarding, guitar-playing, highflying teenager named Nathan Chen — withstood the drama that drew in those around him as he seized his second straight U.S. Figure Skating Championship. He finished his season undefeated in competition, with all first-place finishes.

With a total score of 315.23, 40 points higher than his closest competitor, Chen erased all doubt about his status as the best medal hope American men's figure skating has had since Evan Lysacek won in 2010. But the rest of the field left heaps of doubt, as past U.S. champions and Olympic hopefuls Adam Rippon and Jason Brown encountered stunning struggles at the worst possible moment.

They left room for unexpected contender Ross Miner to seize the silver medal — and left U.S. Figure Skating's selection committee to sort through the rubble of what became a shocking night in San Jose.

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That committee will announce the Olympic team Sunday morning, but it has set a precedent of selecting the top three finishers at nationals. Given the way things ended Saturday evening, with Miner on the podium as a far less decorated international skater than those who stumbled around him, that precedent may change this time. Vincent Zhou took the bronze medal with a strong performance, laden with five quads like only he and Chen can. He was not perfect, but now has a strong case for one of the other two Olympic spots.

But that third spot will be complicated. Miner, 26, was not expected to break into the top tier of Chen, Zhou, Rippon and Brown and bust onto the podium here, though he has won three medals at nationals in his career. He does not have the international track record.

But with a high-energy program set to a Queen medley, one that lifted the crowd into relative frenzy and kept them there, Miner stole Olympic certainty from his more talked-about comrades. He hit all of his jumps, and though he had just one quad to show, he hit that and more, more entertaining than explosive, more fun than forceful.

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As his score appeared — 185.60 — Miner leaned over in disbelief. He had taken the lead from Zhou, and climbed his way into the ranks of podium potentials — ranks that seemed to be well-established before he shook them with song choice and the sass to match it.

Moments later, when Rippon stumbled on the first jump of his free skate, the odds seemed to shift. Rippon had entered the evening second after the short program, a clean skate away from his first Olympics at age 28. Two days after looking unwaveringly confident in that short program, Rippon watched an opportunity slip away as he fell on that opening quad toe loop, then missed two planned triples — jumps he previously has hit hundreds of times.

He remained stoic as his score of 171.82 appeared. He would miss the podium when he needed it most, leaving his Olympic fate in the committee's hands. His fourth-place finish ensured Miner would make the podium, a stunning surprise.

Brown stumbled early, too, turning momentary chaos into prolonged shock and awe. His score was even more uncharacteristic than Rippon's: 160.45, good for sixth place. Two of the more consistent skaters in the field had stumbled at the biggest moment, leaving only the most consistent one — undefeated Chen — to salvage predictions.

Chen entered this week as something between the favorite and a sure thing. Barring all the usual caveats — injury, uncharacteristic falls, a competition-ending earthquake — Chen would be the victor. His programs are loaded with quad jumps he not only tries, but generally executes, jumps that maximize the technical earning potential of his skates beyond most of his competition. Even if he isn't perfect, Chen's aerial abilities carry him, and force the rest of his competition to chase him.

Neither injuries nor an earthquake shoved Chen off track Saturday evening, which funneled to his free skate. At that time, Chen knew exactly how many points he needed to take the lead. Neither he, nor anyone else in SAP Center, could have predicted from whom he would be taking it.

Note: As expected, the husband-wife team of Christopher Knierim and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim took the gold medal in the pairs championship Saturday afternoon, riding their highflying quad twist to their second national title. Only one pairs team will represent the United States at the Olympics next month, and while the teams will not be made official until Sunday morning, the Knierims seem likely to be the chosen duo.

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