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Nathan Chen of the United States opened his short program at the World Figure Skating Championships Thursday by falling on a jump in an individual competition for the first time after having stayed upright on 120 straight dating to 2018. That meant he lost a program after winning 21 straight since that previous fall. Now in third place, 8.13 points behind the leader, Chen will now be hard pressed to win a third straight world title.
Vincent Zhou of the United States, the reigning world bronze medalist, made an utter hash of all three short program jumping passes and finished 25th, one place below what was needed to advance to Saturday’s free skate. That complicates U.S. hopes for three men’s spots at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan may not have been fully content with his skating, but the two-time Olympic champion finished first after making no mistakes in an electric performance that fulfilled the title of his music, “Let Me Entertain You,” by Robbie Williams.
Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, a 17-year-old in his senior worlds debut, skated fearlessly at Mach 2, collected the highest combined scores of the day for two jumping passes with quads and a huge personal best score (100.96) while finishing second to his countryman, Hanyu (106.98).
Keegan Messing of Canada skated charmingly to an Ed Sheeran romantic ballad, then tapped his wedding ring to acknowledge his wife, Lane Hodson, who is expecting the couple’s first child in July. Messing wound up a solid fifth, just .01 behind Mikhail Kolyada of Russia.
So the men’s short program Thursday in Stockholm was as packed with a variety of surprises as the women’s had been Wednesday.
And there were, naturally, nits to pick about the scoring, as the judges were quite generous with Chen’s component marks and parsimonious with those of his teammate, Jason Brown, even though Brown’s seventh place (but just 2.27 from fourth) owed equally to his not having a quadruple jump.
Brown’s striking, angular interpretation of Nina Simone’s powerful version of “Sinnerman,” inspired by the Alvin Ailey ballet to that music, somehow got a lower PCS score than Chen’s unremarkable performance to Latin-themed music. And Chen lost only 1.53 PCS points to the masterful Hanyu, even though Chen had a sloppy combination spin.
Nearly all the point difference between Chen (98.85) and Hanyu came from the minus-5.75 grade of execution and the minus-1.00 fall deduction from Chen’s botched quad lutz. Coincidentally, his last fall, at the 2018 French Grand Prix, also was on that jump.
“I was a little bit shocked,” Chen admitted. “As soon as I took off, I was like, `This isn’t going well.’”
Chen said he felt fortunate the lutz wasn’t meant to be the opener of the required jump combination so he didn’t have to revamp the rest of the 2-minute, 50-second program on the fly. Simply regrouping after a big error is hard enough.
“In a clean program, when you pick off the first couple jumps, the rest of the program kind of goes on autopilot, whereas when you make a mistake, you have to really, really think about what you are doing to prevent further mistakes,” Chen said.
Chen did make one more mistake, on the spin, but he had strong execution of his final two jumping passes, a triple Axel and quad flip-triple toe combination. The latter got the highest score of the day (19.86) for the jump combination.
Based on the base values for the elements each programmed in his winning free skates at their respective 2021 national championships, Chen would start Saturday’s free skate with an approximately eight-point advantage over Hanyu before GOE and PCS are added.
That difference assumes five quads for Chen, four for Hanyu. It would shrink considerably if Chen jettisons the quad lutz, which he has now botched two straight times (a landing step out and minus-4.14 GOE at nationals), which he said Thursday was possible if it didn’t go well in practices the next couple days.
Post-2018 rules allowing repetition of just one type of quad and Chen’s justifiable reluctance to try a quad loop, which he does not land consistently, mean he cannot realistically hope to do five without the lutz.
“At this point in time, the risk isn’t always worth it,” Chen said. “There’s a fine line between what you are capable of doing and what you have to push to do.”
Hanyu put himself in a strong position to win a third world title and beat Chen for the first time in their three meetings since the 2018 Olympics by not making a huge error in the short program, as had happened at the 2019 World Championships and 2019 Grand Prix Final.
“Overall, I’m very satisfied, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, that I know,” said Hanyu, 26, who has had eight higher short program scores in a career remarkable for both its achievement and longevity.
Kagiyama, coached by his father, Masakazu, a two-time Olympic figure skater, credited insouciance for the way he attacked his short program. The seeming successor to Hanyu (should he ever retire) blasted into a quad salchow-triple toe and quad toe to open, getting high GOEs, and he kept the energy and performance level high throughout.
“Because it was my first [senior] worlds, I had nothing to lose, and I could just go and enjoy myself,” Kagiyama said. “There was some tension, but I was so excited I really wanted to get onto the ice.”
Zhou, sixth in the 2018 Olympics, let the tension get to him despite years more experience – or maybe because of it, because he knew what was at stake.
“I was really nervous,” Zhou said. “I had stomach butterflies in my whole body.”
Zhou tried to convince himself he would be fine, but that didn’t work. He fell on the opening jump, a quad lutz that was downgraded; did not fully rotate either jump of a quad salchow-triple toe combination; and fell on a triple axel that also was not fully rotated.
“I bombed my  Olympic short program, so I know how tough that feels,” Chen said. “He’s going to learn from this competition, I’m sure of that.”
Chen also was aware Zhou’s failure to make the free skate muddles the process for the United States to get a third Olympic spot.
Even though Chen and Brown are likely to have final placements good enough to earn the third spot (adding up to 13 or fewer), a rule passed after the 2018 Olympics no longer makes that automatic.
If a country with three skaters at the pre-Olympic worlds does not get all three into the free skate, it must send a skater to a qualifying event next fall. If, as is likely, that becomes the case for Team USA, neither Chen nor Brown could be chosen to do that qualifier.
“This is certainly not a result I even wanted to consider coming into this competition,” Zhou said. “I feel like I let down my teammates, my country and myself.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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