Salt Lake City’s Nathan Chen cruises to second U.S. skating championship in a row; next stop, Winter Olympics

San Jose, Calif. • He’s in, he’s there, his ticket all but booked, no matter what.

The leaping, twisting, soaring figure skating phenom that is Nathan Chen will be in South Korea in a month’s time vying for Olympic gold.

It’s certain, but not set in stone until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

After the 18-year-old ran away in the men’s free skate program Saturday night en route to the 2018 U.S. title, his name should be the first announced Sunday morning when a committee finally unveils the three-man Olympic team. The only drama is who gets the second and third spots.

“I still need time to really wrap my head around this,” he said.

Because Salt Lake City’s homegrown star is now the back-to-back U.S. male figure skating champion, rolling into the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang with his revolutionary arsenal of quad jumps and unwavering demeanor. Chen, born and raised in Salt Lake, is expected to contend with the world’s best skaters for the Olympic pinnacle. Some evidence: His margin of victory Saturday was a whopping 40.72 points.

Officials will file through the necessary criteria over the past calendar year, combing through the results each figure skater achieved when stepping off the ice in venues around the globe. Their easiest choice is the face of U.S. figure skating, the obvious shot to bring medals and glory back home at the end of next month.

“Ultimately, this is the dream that I’ve wanted for a long, long time,” Chen said. “I really strived toward [it] my whole life. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to be on that Olympic team.”

In the past year, Chen has won two U.S. crowns, topped the reigning Olympic gold medalist on the Olympic ice in Gangeung Arena in South Korea, and went unbeaten in the fall Grand Prix series. The tidal wave of pressure has been managed by the teen sensation to this point, but another one, a much larger one, awaits.

He’s been dubbed America’s best shot in Pyeongchang by skating analysts and former U.S. star skaters alike.

It was never more apparent than Saturday evening at the SAP Center.

As vets such as Adam Rippon and Jason Brown struggled in their programs with Olympic spots on the line, each tumbling to the ice on jump attempts, Chen lifted the spirits of the sold-out crowd after sticking his first of five quad attempts. Then came the second, punctuated by a fist pump from coach Rafael Arutunian.

As usual, his pioneering ways stacked up.

A third came.

Then a fourth.

Chen’s last quad landing, a suitable punctuation, was his cleanest of the night. It was, he said, the first time he’s been able to piece together a five-quad program all season. And, of course, he stuck every one.

“I have this plan for myself,” he said, “and I know it’s a strong one.”

In the stands, near the top of section 127, sat Chen’s family. Nearly his whole family made it, including three of his four siblings. They’ve been along for the ride all these years, watching him, the youngest of the five Chen kids, climb higher, carve more exquisitely and spin unlike any other before him.

At the U.S. championship event eight years ago, a 10-year-old Chen first announced himself to figure skating, winning the men’s novice title. There he estimated that in about eight year’s time, he’d probably be ready to qualify for his first Olympic Games.

There, at the top of section 127 inside the SAP Center, his family held up a small, modest sign.

It read: “Nathan Chen.”

If you didn’t know before, get to know the name.

You have a little over a month. He’s headed for Pyeongchang.

It becomes official Sunday morning.

2018 U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS<br>Location » SAP Center, San Jose, Calif.<br>Men’s overall<br>1.Nathan Chen, 315.23 (2018 U.S. champion)<br>2. Ross Minser, 274.51<br>3. Vincent Zhou, 273.83<br>Olympic team announcement » Sunday morning