Chen, Hubbell and Donohue Take Skate America Titles
They say there’s no place like home, and U.S. athletes delivered on that axiom by earning five medals at 2019 Skate America presented by American Cruise Lines in Las Vegas at Orleans Arena.
Nathan Chen and Jason Brown went 1-2 in the men’s competition, while Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue took ice dance gold, Bradie Tennell earned silver on the ladies’ side and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier wrapped up the pairs competition with bronze.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Nathan Chen.
He still has all the hallmarks of the old Chen, and his finish at Skate America proves as much – a gold medal, an overall score of 299.09 and a margin of victory of exactly 44 points, the largest ever at Skate America – but recognizing him might take a moment.
Chen’s free skate is set to music from the Rocketman soundtrack – and earned him 196.38 points in Las Vegas – and includes a hip-hop step sequence. It’s a performance for which he’s eschewed his traditionally more demure costumes, debuting the program in a rainbow, abstract-patterned shirt.
“As you guys have seen on Twitter, it’s all about the tour bus upholstery,” Chen joked, laughing about his costume. “The funny thing is actually my mother made this costume for me. She just made the shirt. She threw it together pretty last-minute. We literally just walked into a fabric store and were like, ‘Yeah, this fabric looks cool.’”
The program, he says, was an intentional departure from his comfort zone.
“It’s super different from what I did last year, and that’s the point,” Chen said. “Every year we want to do something different with the music, with the program, with the style.”
The hip-hop choreography is not only something new for Chen, but it’s something that not many skaters in general have done. But it was a crowd-pleaser in Vegas, and Chen says the crowd’s reaction helped him get through the end of his program with the necessary energy.
“I was a little skeptical at the beginning of the choreography process just because not many have done it,” Chen said. “The thing that persuaded me was that it’s less than 30 seconds of the program, just at the end, and it comes from the actual music. It’s not like we’re just throwing in some random rap that makes no sense. So it’s still part of the program, still part of ‘Benny and the Jets,’ so I think it was a good addition and it’s a lot of fun.”
Chen was joined on the podium by compatriot Brown, who won silver with 255.09 points, and Russia’s Dmitri Aliev, who took bronze with 253.55.
At this point, Chen’s streak of accomplishments is reaching a stratosphere all its own. This is his third consecutive Skate America title, making him the second U.S. man to achieve the feat since Todd Eldredge in 1994-97. His streak of Grand Prix medals is now at eight, his streak of Grand Prix titles is now at seven and his overall winning streak is now at seven and dates back to the 2018 World Championships.
Simply put, he’s been all but untouchable since faltering in the short program at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
But despite winning yet another gold medal, he’s not entirely satisfied.
“I’m pretty happy with the performance today,” Chen said. “This is the first Grand Prix of the season, first real competition of the season since Worlds, so it’s nice to be able to put out both programs. I’m pretty happy with the score. Of course, a lot of things to improve on, but overall a good starting point.”
Behind Chen, Brown earned 171.64 for his free skate to music from Schindler’s List to take home his seventh career Grand Prix medal, his first at Skate America since the 2015-16 season.
“It was my first debut of this program of Schindler’s List, and I’ve been working really hard on it all summer and kind of getting into the emotion of it and working it through, and I tried to really put my heart into it,” Brown said. “I had a rough go yesterday a little bit with confidence, and I was trying to put it behind me and focus on the performance, and focus on taking it one step at a time and just settling into it rather than getting ahead of myself.”
Brown has spent several months getting back to normal following a car crash in August that left him with whiplash and a concussion. Spinning made him nauseous until just two weeks ago, and making his season debut at a Grand Prix and so fresh off of injury added a level of nerves he was unaccustomed to.
“I definitely had a little bit of a different type of anxiety of competing kind of feeling like, ‘What’s it going to be like to perform?’” Brown said. “And I think by making it through the short, even though I had some struggles and little mind bobbles during the performance, I think it gave me that, ‘Oh this is competition,’ and kind of just rebooted me to be like, okay, I can do tomorrow. It gave me a little extra boost of confidence.”
Alex Krasnozhon placed eighth with 216.59 points, earning 144.29 points in the free skate for his performance to music from Dracula.
“Well, I fell. Hard. Painful,” Krasnozhon joked before getting serious. “It was okay. I’m not going to say I skated great and amazing. I’m going to say I made a mistake and had to continue my program, and that was a good lesson for me.”
They may have skated to “A Star is Born,” but for Hubbell and Donohue, their star has already risen and Skate America was business as usual.
The pair won gold with 209.55 points overall for their 12th consecutive Grand Prix podium finish and fourth event win in a row.
The Skate America title is also the 11th in a row for U.S. ice dance teams.
“We were really looking forward to debuting this program,” Hubbell said. “There were good things and not so good things, and we feel like we can make a lot of progress already for (Skate Canada International). But we feel like there was a really nice crowd reaction, and it was a nice connection between the two of us, and that’s a great place to start.”
In first place after their rhythm dance, Hubbell and Donohue earned 124.58 points for their performance to music from the A Star is Born soundtrack.
Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia earned silver with 206.57 points, and Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen of Canada won bronze with 197.53.
Going into the season, Hubbell and Donohue had not planned on skating to A Star is Born. But when coach Marie-France Dubreuil made the suggestion and they began trying some improvisation to the music, they found that – somewhat surprisingly – it worked.
“We do really enjoy the kind of southern rock and roll vibe of that program,” Hubbell said. “I think it gives us equal chance to show up in the program. Both characters are really strong, and I like that kind of bad boy character for Zach. I think that really embodies his true personality.”
“Dead boy character today,” Donohue, who’s sick with bronchitis, joked.
His illness made the program more of a fight than they would’ve liked, and the pair found they lost energy towards the end and struggled with the heaviness of their lift and were late on the music.
“It wasn’t the score we were hoping for, but neither was it the performance we were hoping for,” Hubbell said. “So we’re going to take a few days of rest, continue the antibiotics and regroup for next week.”
“I’m hoping to have two working lungs by Skate Canada (International),” Donohue quipped. “That would be nice.”
Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko placed sixth overall with 180.55 points, rebounding from the rhythm dance to earn 110.14 points for their free dance to a flamenco medley.
“It was much better than yesterday, for sure,” Carreira said. “There’s still a lot we want to improve and make better, but from yesterday it’s a big improvement. And that’s how we want to skate.”
“I think it’s very redeeming,” Ponomarenko added. “We promised everybody that we would skate better today, and we did that, so I feel very happy about that. There’s still a lot we need to improve on but I’m happy with where we are at this point in the season.”
In their first Grand Prix, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons finished seventh overall, earning 173.03 points after their free skate to “Conquest of Spaces” and “I Love You” by Woodkid scored 105.06.
“I think our goal going in was just to have two clean programs, and I think that was what we achieved this time around,” Green said.
In 2017, Tennell put the world on notice when she won bronze at 2017 Skate America in her Grand Prix debut, signaling her arrival on the international stage.
In 2018, Tennell persevered through a season plagued with uncharacteristic inconsistency, winning another Grand Prix bronze, this time at Internationaux de France.
In 2019, she’s moving up the ladder.
Tennell won silver at Skate America, earning 216.14 points overall. She finished behind Anna Shcherbakova of Russia, who took gold with 227.76 points, and ahead of Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, also of Russia, who won bronze with 205.97 points.
“I’m happy with my skate today,” Tennell said. “I think there’s of room for improvement, so my goal going into this next week is to just maintain what I have and possibly improve.”
Tennell finished second in the free skate, her performance to “Cinema Paradiso” by Ennio Morricone earning 141.04 points but giving her clear goals to work towards before she competes at Skate Canada International next weekend.
“I want to be more free,” Tennell said. “I think last night’s performance was a bit more free than tonight’s, so I think going into this week, that’s my main goal, is to just skate free.”
Now in her second full season on the Grand Prix circuit, Tennell is pleased to be elevating her skating following a season that didn’t turn out the way she would’ve liked.
“You don’t get a jump in a day, and obviously you can’t expect to improve your skating in a week,” Tennell said. “I think that last year was a very good learning year for me, and going into this season I’m being able to take my experiences from last year and draw from them to better myself this year.”
Amber Glenn finished in seventh place with 169.63 points, earning 104.92 points for her program set to “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles.
“I think it’s been a great experience,” Glenn said. “It made me realize how badly I want to be doing this throughout my season, how badly I want to be on the Grand Prix circuit permanently, not just having to fight for one slot. It’s given me a lot of motivation to try and make it back here next year.”
Karen Chen rounded out the U.S. contingent in eighth place with 165.67 points overall and 99.64 for her skate to “Illumination” by Secret Garden.
“That was definitely not what I trained myself to do,” Chen said. “It was hard because I started off with one mistake and it just kind of kept building. It was definitely hard for me to find my rhythm today.”
For Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, it really is the circle of life.
The last time they skated their free skate to music from The Lion King, in 2014-15, they won their first Grand Prix medal when they took silver at Skate America.
Now, in 2019, with several years, many ups and downs and a serious injury – and a remake of The Lion King – behind them, Denney and Frazier returned to the music they loved so much and again made it count.
Denney and Frazier won bronze with 192.70 points, finishing second in the free skate with 127.52 points. They were joined on the podium Cheng Peng and Yang Jin of China, who won gold with 200.89 points, and Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin, earning silver with 196.98 points.
The medal is Denney and Frazier’s third at the Grand Prix level, all at Skate America.
“Emotionally, it’s been a tough process,” Frazier said. “I told Haven like a week ago that sometimes it just feels more stress than it really needs to be when we compete. We just want to enjoy it again.”
For the first time in a long time, Denney and Frazier enjoyed it.
As their free skate ended, Denney was overcome with emotion and the two embraced before skating to the kiss and cry, Denney already wiping away tears.
“It was a fight. We left points on the table, of course, and I’m sure we’re going to go back (and work on things),” Frazier said. “But we haven’t felt like that in a long time, and I think it was because we weren’t putting pressure on hitting or missing.”
The pair focused on aggressively going after their elements and taking the program one step at a time, and so far, it’s a tactic that’s already paying dividends.
“I think our goal for this program was just to be very proactive and mindful about what we were doing, and not let anything get taken away from us,” Denney said. “We want it so bad, so we’re just going to fight for everything and not let anything go. So I think we did that today, and that’s why we got very emotional during the end of the program.”
Denney also recalled the struggles of the last several years since she suffered a serious knee injury in 2015. She underwent surgery, and the duo didn’t compete at all during the 2015-16 season.
They won their first U.S. title in 2017 and won their second Grand Prix medal that season, but slipped to fifth in 2018 and were not selected for the Olympic team. They won the U.S. silver medal in 2019 and, with Skate America bronze under their belts, hope this is just the beginning of good things to come.
“Coming back from injury, it’s been ups and downs,” Denney said. “We worked so hard at home, so little moments like this – we’re never going to get back this program here at Skate America again, so we want to not take anything for granted. We’re really happy that we were able to perform like we train at home.”
In their Grand Prix debut, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson finished fourth overall with 180.52 points after a fourth-place performance for their free skate to
“You Are the Reason” by Calum Scott and Leona Lewis that earned 119.25 points.
“I think overall, we just tried to really take in the moment, since this is our first Grand Prix together,” Calalang said. “Enjoy our time out on the ice together. We really wanted to show off those programs.”
After sitting in third place following the short program, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc finished fifth in the free skate to place fifth overall with 177.54 points, earning 109.34 points for their skate to “The Middle of the World” by Nicholas Britell and “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.
“The first thing we said when we got off the ice was, ‘We did not train to go out and skate like that,’” LeDuc said. “We always try to look back at every competition and find ways that we can grow and become stronger, and today is a great opportunity for that.”
Fans can tune in for highlights of 2019 Skate America presented by American Cruise Lines on Sunday, Oct. 20 on NBC. Watch every skate on-demand with the Figure Skating Pass on NBC Sports Gold.