Nathan Chen gets funky on his way to winning sixth straight US Championship

Salt Lake City figure skater slips while getting down to ‘Bennie and the Jets’ but is cleared for Olympic redemption

(Mark Zaleski | AP) Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Nathan Chen went looking for the fun and funky side of skating. He found it Sunday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Chen got so into dancing to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” at the end of Sunday’s free skate at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, in fact, that he uncharacteristically tripped — marking his second fall of the performance. Neither that spill nor the one that came when he attempted a quadruple flip early in the program could get him out of his groove, however. The Salt Lake City skater who entered in first place after the short program still produced the highest scores of the afternoon on his way to winning his sixth straight U.S. championship. That’s one shy of the record set by Dick Button, who won seven straight from 1946-52.

Even before that feat, Chen, the top skater in the world, was a shoo-in to be selected among the three U.S. men who will compete at the Beijing Olympics next month. Vincent Zhou, who won the season-opening U.S. Grand Prix to become the only person to win an event Chen has entered since the 2018 Olympics, placed third in Nashville to secure his spot. The third spot was thrown into limbo, however, when 17-year-old wunderkind Ilia Malinin took silver at nationals, while six-time nationals medalist and 2018 Olympian Jason Brown took fourth. Ultimately, when the committee announced its decision Sunday evening, Brown got the nod. Malinin will be the first alternate.

Brown described Sunday as “a really emotional day.”

“A lot of tears,” he said. “A lot a lot of tears, but slowly it’s sinking in.”

Chen appeared impervious to the pressure of the moment as he rebooted his program from 2019-20, which featured “La Bohème” in the short program and an Elton John compilation hinging on the song “Rocketman” in the free skate. Chen went undefeated while first performing that program, which was distinct for its incorporation of hip-hop dance moves at the end.

“In a skater’s career, you know, we only have a very set number of competitions that we can do. So as I have these opportunities, I want to make most of them and be able to look back on my skating career some 10-20 years from now and be like, you know, I really enjoyed the time that I was there,” Chen said. “I really have a lot of fun on the ice and this program is just a great vehicle to be able to do that. ...The tempo and just the sort of energy that the music gives allows me to have a lot of fun with the program. So, you know, as much as I can, I try to remind myself of that and I’m glad that I was able to do that today.”

He even laughed off his stumble.

“Silly things happen all the time. Am I to expect that? Probably not,” he said. “But you know, it was kind of a dumb little moment and I just got really wrapped up in that moment. I lost my footing. So, you know, it is what it is. And I’ll make sure I don’t do that again.”

His next chance will be at the Olympics. He is a favorite to win gold, but he was also in that situation in 2018 when he had a dismal short program and entered the free skate in 17th place. He fought back to finish in fifth place overall, but the cloud of that experience still hangs over him.

Having a little fun might help chase it away, but Chen wasn’t willing to announce whether the “Rocketman” program would be part of his arsenal in Beijing.

“As you can see, I can I definitely get into the program and that’s something that I’ve just really enjoyed performing over the past couple years,” said Chen, who trains in Los Angeles. “But when the time comes, the time will come and I will make that decision.”

The Beijing Olympics begin Feb. 3 (Feb. 4 in China) and men’s figure skating will be held Feb. 7 and 9.