Figure skating: Back on home ice, Nathan Chen’s star continues to rise

Salt Lake skater, 18, finishes first in men’s short program at 2017 U.S. International Classic

United States' Nathan Chen competes during in the men's short program at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

It rang through the rink — the same word repeated over and over and over again — as Nathan Chen carefully carved his way around the ice, preparing to officially blaze his trail toward a potential Olympics debut.

“Home,” repeated in Chen’s new short program debut song. It kept on going before finally, when the first verse of Benjamin Clementine’s song “Nemesis” hit, the 18-year-old born and raised in Salt Lake City, showcased why, exactly, he’s viewed as both the now and the future of American figure skating.

And back inside the rink where he first learned to skate as a toddler, Chen was home. The performance that ensued proved why the skating phenom has a so much riding on this Olympic season. Chen, predictably, left the Salt Lake City Sports Complex Thursday in first place, snagging first place in the men’s short program of the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic.

“To be right back where I started is indescribable,” Chen said in a crowd of reporters afterward. “It’s really cool. This is Olympic season, the season I’ve looked forward to my entire life. I grew up in an Olympic city.”

The event marked the official start of figure skating’s Olympic season. And with the hometown star back, it was no shock to see the reigning 2017 U.S. Champion set himself above the rest. Chen finished with a 91.80 in the men’s short program, nearly six points ahead of second place, fellow American, Max Aaron (86.06).

Chen, who moved to Southern California at age 12 to work more closely with his full-time coaches, was pleased with how his new routine unfolded on the competitive stage. While it featured only one attempted quadruple jump, Chen’s rounded program pushed him to the top of the men’s competition entering Saturday night’s free skate session.

Viewed as a revolutionary in the sport, it was Chen who made figure skating history at the 2017 U.S. Championships when he became the first skater ever to land five quads in a free skate competition — and seven total in both his short program and free skate.

“I’m glad he’s on my team,” Aaron said with a grin.

Immersing himself in his new program, Chen said, has helped distract him from all the outside attention that’s only going to increase as the season continues, and the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, near. Initially, he wasn’t too hot on the song choice.

“I thought maybe a little intense, a little bit too, in a sense, modern,” he said.

Chen’s banner year as a skater last season came competing to more classical-based routines. A former student in Salt Lake’s Ballet West Academy, he grew accustomed to that sort of standard theme when he skated, he said. The new program, however, shifted things up a bit.

“The best pieces and best programs are the ones I’m not sold at the beginning,” he said.

With his parents in the crowd, seated on the same bleachers where they sat watching him slip and slide as a kid in those early days in skates, Chen said he was able to take time to himself and let it sink in. It was a moment he wouldn’t let zip by unnoticed.

Chen’s come full circle, passing the initial test of a season that promises to have several along the way. He hasn’t buckled under the weight of expectations, he said. That just comes along with the territory.

“All the pressure is within myself,” he said. “That’s kind of the way things have been since I was a kid, the way things are now and obviously there’s more media, a lot more talk going around. It’s, in a sense, almost reassuring just knowing I’m going in the right direction.”

Chen is, and it started again, back on home ice.

2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, Salt Lake City Sports Complex<br>1:20 p.m. - Senior Dance Short Dance<br>3 p.m. - Senior Ladies Short Program<br>4:50 p.m. - Senior Pairs Free Skate<br>7 p.m. - Senior Men’s Free Skate