A stark-white teddy bear clutching a deep-red heart hit the rink soundlessly, bouncing a couple of times upon impact, collecting a thin layer of ice on its fur. Another one landed nearby, and then another one, and another.
Screams from the crowd filled the auditorium as ice skater Nathan Chen smiled, then waved to the enthusiastic attendees after his final performance on Sunday evening. The two-time world champion and current number one in the world, had just landed a pair of quad toe loops, a quad flip and a quad Salchow during his free skate, a performance that would lead to him winning the gold medal at the US National Ice Skating Championships at the Greensboro Coliseum, the fourth time Chen has won the honor.
“I’m happy to be here and happy that the results went the way that they did,” Chen said during the press conference, after winning the competition.
At 20 years old, Chen is just the ninth man to earn four US championships in a row, the first since Brian Boitano accomplished the feat back in 1988. Chen said the fact isn’t lost on him that he’s now following in the footsteps of some of the greatest male skaters in the country’s history.
“It’s a huge a deal for me to be able to take the next steps to sort of, not necessarily becoming one of these legends but trying to follow in their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things well beyond what I’ve already accomplished and it’s amazing to be able to have that inspiration in front of you.”
During his performance, Chen skated to tracks from Rocketman, the recently released biopic of Elton John’s life. And although he said that he was more of a Beatles fan who had listened to John when the Spotify algorithm added him in, Chen looked like he was fully enjoying himself on the ice.
Mixing in some hip-hop-esque dance moves that elicited wild screams from the crowd, Chen incorporated a more energetic, modern feel than many other athletes that night who skated to more traditional, classical pieces.
In the end, his performance yielded him a 37-point lead over the second-place skater, Jason Brown, who skated to music from Schindler’s List, just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I think that for me it took until this year, until I was 25 years old to even have the feeling that I could take on Schindler’s List, said Brown, who is Jewish. “It took that long because I wanted to do it justice and I know how significant the story is.”
Chen, Brown and Vincent Zhou, who came in fourth, were selected to skate in the 2020 World Championships this March in Montreal. Many of them will also compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
And while Chen coasted easily to the top in this year’s competition, in the pairs competition, husband and wife duo Alexa Knierim and Christopher Knierim skated with a vengeance.
After their short program on Jan. 23, the pair was ranked first, with a 7-point lead. Coming into the competition, the Kneirims had faced a rollercoaster year, which included a change in coaches and cities. They finished seventh at last year’s national competition and lost a sponsor despite winning the national competition just two years ago in San Jose and once before in 2015, in Greensboro, the second time the city had hosted the event.
After suffering a fall towards the beginning of the free-skate program on Jan. 25, Chris recovered quickly and the couple managed to land a solid triple twist, throw triple loop and throw triple Lutz. Each throw and twist seemed to defy gravity, as Knierim cleanly caught and spun his partner while balancing on the thin, single blade. The trust and partnership between the two led to their victory in the end.
“Redemption always feels good,” Alexa said during the press conference. “It was hard last year, being so low, but we worked hard, and we hope this pushes us forward. We are elated to retain our title again. It’s quite an honor and we are proud of that accomplishment, but it is not always about the label and the victory of the gold, sometimes it’s what got you there.”
Alisa Liu, a 14-year-old competitor, was crowned the ladies champion on Jan. 24 while Madison Chock and Evan Bates won the championship dance category.
While this was only the third time that Greensboro has hosted the national event, some spectators have been attending the competition for years.
Sheryl Scarborough, who sat in the front row with a few friends with matching American-flag jackets, said that she’s been coming to the national championships for 39 years.
“It was always a sport that I enjoyed as a child,” said Scarborough, who traveled from Manassas, Va. to attend the event.
Scarborough said she was hooked after seeing her first championship live in 1981 when the tournament was hosted in her hometown of San Diego. And when the competition travels to San Jose next year, she said she’ll be there.
“You see so much more coming to see it live than watching on TV,” she said.