A look into Team USA's figure skaters

By CATHERINE PALMER | February 8, 2018

Nathan Chen 2017 Nationals

 LEAH ADAMS/CC BY-SA 4.0

Nathan Chen predicted eight years ago that he would go to these Olympics.

Thursday marks the kickoff of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Among the 243 athletes representing Team USA are six of the best skaters in the world. The following is a look at the careers of the three men and three women going for singles figure skating gold. 

The Prodigy

In 2010, 10-year-old Nathan Chen became the youngest winner of the novice title at the U.S. National Championships. In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Joyce, Chen said that he would be going to the 2018 Olympics. 

Last month, Chen’s prediction came true when he won his second straight and sixth overall National Championship as a senior skater by a margin of 41 points.

Now 18 years old, Chen is a definite contender for the gold medal. In addition to his national success, Chen also has won 13 international titles since 2009. 

To reference a more household name, Chen is the Simone Biles of the ice skating world. His programs are both more technically difficult and more flawlessly executed than pretty much anyone else. 

At the 2017 Nationals, he became the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in a long program (or free skate), which lasts about 4.5 minutes. This year, even while slightly under-the-weather, he landed five again. For perspective, many skaters never even attempt one, let alone land it successfully. 

Chen’s artistry is not lacking either. Skating scores are calculated based on not only technical merit and required elements but also on presentation. Aided by a background in ballet and gymnastics, Chen has the unique ability to excel in both facets of the competition, which makes him nearly unbeatable.

The Rising Stars

Bradie Tennell, who turned 20 last month, is the ultimate dark-horse Olympian. Prior to 2017, she had four national titles to her name and only one as a senior. At the 2017 Nationals, she placed ninth. This season, everything changed. 

Over the summer, she won her first international title. In November, she made her debut at a Grand Prix (GP) competition as a senior and placed third, becoming the first female skater in 10 years to medal in a GP debut. 

Then, last month, she won Nationals, beating out 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who came in second, and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, who came in fourth. 

It’s difficult to predict if Tennell’s meteoric rise will continue in PyeongChang, but she’s certainly proved that anything is possible.

Joining Tennell on the women’s team is 18-year-old Karen Chen, the 2017 National Champion. Since 2009, she has won eight national and two international titles. She also notably placed third in her senior national debut at the 2015 Nationals. 

In addition to being a world-class skater, Chen is also a skilled choreographer. In fact, she won Nationals last year and placed third this year with programs she choreographed herself. 

Chen also holds the record for the highest score (72.82) ever given in the women’s short program at Nationals, which she achieved in 2017.

Joining Nathan Chen on the men’s team is fellow teenager Vincent Zhou. At 17, Zhou is not only the youngest U.S. skater but also the youngest U.S. Olympian competing in PyeongChang. 

Since 2009, he has garnered nine national and three international titles, including 2017 World Junior Champion. At the 2017 Nationals, competing as a senior, he came in second to Chen. 

This year, recovering from a recent shoulder dislocation, he fought hard to move up from fifth place after the short program, which lasts a little under three minutes. 

After an ambitious free skate in which he attempted five quads, receiving full marks for one and partial credit for three others, he missed out on second place by less than a point.

While Zhou may not be as technically proficient as Chen, his ability to even attempt five quads still gives him an edge over other competitors and helps counterbalance his artistry, which is not as strong.

The Veterans

In her debut season as a junior skater in 2007, 13-year-old Mirai Nagasu won the National Championship and placed second at Junior Worlds. The following year, Nagasu won the National Championship as a senior, becoming the second-youngest woman in history to win a senior ladies title. 

Too young to compete as a senior internationally, Nagasu went on to win bronze at the 2008 Junior Worlds. By 2010 Nagasu had three junior and four senior titles under her belt. She came in second at Nationals and was sent to represent Team USA in Vancouver at 16, where she placed fourth.

Flash forward to the 2014 Nationals: Nagasu came in third but was not sent back to the Games.

Similar to gymnastics judging procedures, placement at Nationals is not the sole determining factor in who goes to the Olympics. 

Instead U.S. Figure Skating has the final call and considers skaters’ overall performance records at national and international competitions. 

Fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner was given the third slot instead, based on her stronger international record, and she went on to win a team bronze medal.

After 2014 Nagasu earned two more international titles and placed fourth at the 2015 and 2016 Nationals. Last month she came in second, 17 points ahead of Wagner, securing her spot on a second Olympic team.

Rounding out the men’s team is 28-year-old Adam Rippon, who is competing in his first Games and is the first openly gay athlete to qualify for a Winter Olympics. 

Between 2005 and 2009, Rippon earned nine national and international titles as a junior skater. He won his first and only senior international title in 2010. 

In 2016 he won his first domestic senior title at Nationals. Last month he came in second following the short program but was bumped down to fourth after a disappointing free skate. 

However, due to his stronger international standing, Rippon was chosen for the Olympic team over silver medalist Ross Miner, who moved up from sixth after the short program with a phenomenal free skate.

While Rippon’s record is not as strong as those of Zhou and Chen, his years of dedication to the sport should not be overlooked.

When to Watch

The men and women will begin their Olympic journeys with the team event, similar to that of gymnastics, in which the singles, pairs and ice dancing skaters compete for points as a whole. The event begins tonight at 8 p.m. EST and concludes Sunday. 

Rippon, Zhou and Nathan Chen will skate in the men’s singles event on Feb. 15 and 16. Tennell, Nagasu and Karen Chen will follow in the women’s on Feb. 20 and 22.

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