The men’s event at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships had everything – between Adam Rippon winning his first U.S. title eight years after he won the junior event here in St. Paul and Nathan Chen making all kinds of history with four clean quads in the free skate, the competition here was amazing. And of course, it elicited myriad emotions all over the skating world. Now that I’ve had a couple of hours to digest, here’s my take on what happened (and maybe also what should have happened).
A couple hours after the conclusion of the men’s free skate, US Figure Skating announced that Chen would be heading to Worlds alongside Rippon and silver medalist Max Aaron. So Jason Brown’s petition to Worlds was unsuccessful (he wasn’t even listed as an alternate). The criteria that USFS set out for cases like this made Brown’s case somewhat compelling.
The uncertainty of his recovery from injury was likely part of the decision, but perhaps more importantly, Brown’s tendency to be a late-season skater kept him from putting down impressive skates in the fall competitions. My guess is that had Brown won Skate America and/or showed off clean programs during the fall, his petition might have been provisionally approved. Pure speculation nevertheless.
Once again, Chen proved that he is taking U.S. skating to new technical levels. After becoming the first U.S. man to attempt two quads in the short program on Friday (and a turn-out away from having them be clean), he came back and one-upped himself in the free skate and landed FOUR clean quads in his bronze medal free skate. Were his components too low? No. His closest counterpart is Boyang Jin (though Jin’s technical is higher and Chen’s components are stronger), who gets component marks in the 7s internationally. Chen averaged in the low 8s here, and compared to Aaron and Rippon, the relative differences were about what you would expect on the international level.
But the kicker? Chen is now the only person to ever cleanly rotate and cleanly land four quads in a free skate. Jin has been attempting four quads in his free skate all season, but he has not cleanly landed all four in one event yet. That’s incredible.
At the end of the day, it was Rippon who became national champion for the first time, beating out former champ Aaron by 1.20. In his eighth try at Nationals, after a couple of years when he lost confidence, lost consistency, and, most importantly, lost his triple axel, he finally breaks through and takes that gold. The strides he’s made in both getting his consistency back and improving his overall skating in the past couple of years have been tremendous. Often overlooked is the fact that, while he’s always had strong basics, Rippon has visibly improved in components over the past two years. And that’s been rewarded not only at home, but also internationally, where his components are solidly in the 8s now.
Rippon’s win was a popular outcome for some and a not-so-popular outcome for others. And there were some ifs thrown around – if Aaron had not doubled a triple salchow, he would have won; if Chen had not fallen on his triple axel, he would have won. While all of those things are true, there was also a different if – if Rippon’s quad lutz had been downgraded instead of being called underrotated, he would have ended up with the silver. On the slow motion replay in the arena, the quad lutz looked to be a half-turn short, and the second triple lutz looked to be underrotated. That said, Chen’s triple axel looked to be underrotated as well.
With the exception of a couple of calls, the technical panel in St. Paul has not been super strict. And the caveat is always that we don’t know the cameras and views they use for replay, which could yield different calls. All this is to say that, if we take the calls as they are – meaning that Rippon had an underrotated quad lutz and eight clean triples – the final scoring was fair and plenty legitimate. Could Rippon and Aaron be separated by five points in PCS in international competition? Possible. But for me, the technical panel may have been too lenient on one or both of those rotations, which would have moved Rippon to either second or third.
Either way, based on the Brown petition results, the podium would have consisted of the same three men, and the World team would have been the same as well. And with Aaron, Chen, and Rippon leading the charge in Boston in March, the U.S. is sending its strongest technical team ever, and really, its strongest all-around team in recent memory. A U.S. men’s team with consistent quads and strong components? Who would’ve thought it?