Nathan Chen leads the way at US figure skating championships

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Posted: Jan 18, 2017 2:06 AM
Nathan Chen leads the way at US figure skating championships

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The pain in his hip is gone. All that's left is a surgical screw and a scar.

Nathan Chen hardly thinks about it these days, when he's gliding over the fresh ice in training or competition. The next big thing in American figure skating doesn't worry about it while he's taking off for one of his myriad quads, or that triple axel that causes him so much vexation.

It's been a year, after all. A lot has happened.

"Now, it's totally fine," he said, while preparing for this week's U.S. championships at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, "but it's really difficult when you're injured for worlds or something big. But I think that being able to overcome that makes you stronger."

Yes, that's exactly what the 17-year-old prodigy has done: He's come back stronger.

The avulsion injury, where a piece of the hip bone splintered off, hardly hampered him last month in Marseille, France. Chen landed four of his stunning quadruple jumps during the Grand Prix final to earn silver, becoming the second-youngest ever to medal at the event.

He also was the first American to medal there since Evan Lyascek and Johnny Weir in 2009.

"He's a really great competitor," said reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who will be unable to defend his title due to his own injury, "and I'm really impressed with what he's done."

Not surprisingly, Chen has become the heavy favorite to win the title this weekend.

"The first time I saw him, he was competing against my brother at nationals, and my brother retired after that year because of Nathan," said three-time champion Ashley Wagner. "He's definitely coming into his own. It's awesome how much he's pushing the boundaries of his sport."

By that, Wagner means that there are few other skaters doing quads with the same kind of amplitude as Chen — perhaps Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu and a handful of others.

While risky, the rewards for the high-flying jumps are worth it. Their base value has jumped a considerable amount over the last couple Olympic cycles, reaching a point where even quads that end up under-rotated or with a two-footed landing yield big points.

The big question is what exactly will Chen unveil in Kansas City?

"I've been working on all my quads, excluding toe loops, the past two weeks," he said. "I've thought about different program plans and it depends on how my body is during that time, if anything is hurting, if I'm ready to push full-out. There's a lot of options."

Rippon's decision to withdraw cleared a major road block for Chen, and left Max Aaron and Jason Brown as his biggest competition. But chances are they'll have to land at least one clean quad of their own — and perhaps a couple — to have a shot at winning.

Here's a brief look at the other titles up for grabs this week in Kansas City:

LADIES: Wagner emerged as the favorite after winning Skate America, but a disappointing Cup of China left the race wide open. Defending champion Gracie Gold struggled throughout the fall but should not be counted out, while Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell are podium threats.

Missing is silver medalist Polina Edmunds, who withdrew with a foot injury.

"My confidence, some would say is surprisingly high," Gold said. "The amount of progress I've been able to make since Golden Spin (in December) to now has been incredible. I think I'm going to put out two really great performances in Kansas City."

PAIRS: Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea are back to defend the title they won in St. Paul, Minnesota, but the wild card is how Kayne's knee will hold up. She was diagnosed with a tendon issue that has had an impact on training and competition for much of the past year.

Former champs Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim have withdrawn due to injuries, leaving the teams of Haven Denny and Brandon Frazier and Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran among the favorites.

"We took a break and kind of reorganized a lot of things, a lot of weaknesses we've had this season," Frazier said. "I think the last month has been very solid, probably the best month of training we have had since we've been back."

DANCE: The Americans have become world leaders in ice dance, and that should mean a tight race for medals at the U.S. championships. But reigning champs Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are still clear front-runners, especially after their bronze medal at the Grand Prix final.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 champs who took silver a year ago, are aiming to return to the top. Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue are three-time bronze medalists eager for more.

"I think we're definitely in a different place heading into this championship," Alex Shibutani said. "The results have been validating for us, but I think what led to the success we've had over the past 18 months started with the mindset and approach that we've been able to successfully continue the first half of the season: We don't take anything for granted."