(Reuters) – World champion Nathan Chen, back in competition after a bout of flu, set the pace in the men’s short program as he began his quest for a fourth consecutive U.S. figure skating championships title in Greensboro, North Carolina on Saturday.
The 20-year-old racked up 114.13 points in a performance that put the Yale University sophomore almost 14 points ahead of 2015 U.S. champ Jason Brown (100.99).
Teenager Andrew Torgashev proved to be the surprise package as he stood third (97.87) and world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou fourth at 94.82 heading into Sunday’s free skate.
“I’m thrilled with it,” Chen, who had scored 113.42 points at last year’s U.S. championships, told NBC Sports.
“I wasn’t sure how things would go. Of course I got the flu. Training was a little bit shaky. I wasn’t able to get my jumps in. This was the least prepared I have been but I really made good use of the last week.”
A victory on Sunday will make him the first American man to win four consecutive titles since Brian Boitano in 1988.
“A skater like I have never seen before,” three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, an NBC analyst, said after Chen skated.
Chen said, “Everything felt really calm, really paced throughout the program. I felt I was really in control with that I was doing.”
In the evening session, husband and wife team Chris and Alexa Knierim won their third national championship in the pairs competition despite not being at their best in the free skate.
Chris fell attempting a triple toe loop early in the routine but the pair had built a big enough lead after the short program to prevail over Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who vaulted from fourth to second with the best free skate score.
The Knierims finished with 216.15 points, nearly three points clear of Calalang and Johnson.
In the dance competition, Madison Chock and Evan Bates had the highest score in both the rhythm and free dance routines to win their second national title with 221.86 points.
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Andrew Both; editing by Pritha Sarkar/Peter Rutherford)