US Olympic Figure Skating 2018: Breaking Down Team USA's Men's Team

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2018

US Olympic Figure Skating 2018: Breaking Down Team USA's Men's Team

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    The U.S. men's figure skating selection committee awarded berths to the three male skaters who will represent the U.S. on sports' biggest stage in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

    Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou and Adam Rippon will be the three men competing in the men's singles discipline in the Winter Games. 

    No one was surprised that Chen, who easily took first place in the U.S. Championships Saturday, will be leading the Olympic team's hopes to bring home a medal. Chen finished nationals with a final score of 315.23, 40 points higher than second-place Ross Miner. 

    But the selection committee faced a difficult task when it came to nominating the other two members of Team USA. Miner and Zhou won silver and bronze, respectively, in nationals, after fellow Olympic contenders Rippon and Jason Brown struggled in their programs.

    After deliberating Sunday morning, however, the selection committee looked at each skater's body of work over the entire year before nominating Rippon to the Olympic team despite his fourth-place finish at nationals. 

    We'll take a closer look at the three men who will be competing in Pyeongchang come February 9 and break down some of the storylines worth following as the Games approach. 

Nathan Chen

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    U.S. Championship result: 1st

    Career highlight: Chen won the U.S. national in 2017, as well, but his 2018 win is sweeter when it comes with an automatic berth in the Olympics. Chen was by and large the most impressive performer in the 2018 U.S. Championship, landing five quadruple jumps.

    More background: Chen is the youngest nationals champion since 1966, winning his first title when he was 17 years old. Now 18, he is the only skater in the world to currently have five quadruple jumps in his arsenal: lutz, flip, loop, salchow and toe loop. In January 2016, Chen became the first male figure skater to land four quadruple jumps in a long program. That month, Chen also suffered a hip injury that required surgery, but he was back to full strength training for the Olympics six months later. 

Vincent Zhou

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    U.S. Championship result: 3rd

    Career highlight: Zhou won a silver medal in the 2017 U.S. Championship, but placing higher than his third-place finish this year doesn't outweigh the most important accomplishment of all: an Olympic berth.

    More background: Zhou's nomination to Team USA marks the realization of sacrifices he and his family have made for years. In 2009, his mother quit her job as a computer scientist so she and Zhou could travel to Southern California for his training. Zhou missed the entire 2013-14 season with an injury after he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. But he has been solidifying his case this past year, winning the junior world championships prior to his bronze medal on Saturday's nationals. This will be the first Olympic Games for the 17-year-old.

Adam Rippon

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    U.S. Championship result: 4th

    Career highlight: Absolutely this. Despite placing fourth at nationals, Rippon bumped Miner from Olympics consideration thanks to his strong year of competition leading into the U.S. Championship. 

    More background: At 28 years old, Rippon was the oldest male skater competing at the U.S. Championships, and he is 10 years older than his fellow Team USA members. This past fall, Rippon earned silver at Skate America after dislocating his shoulder, outscoring Chen. This will be Rippon's first Olympic Games after he failed to qualify for the team in both 2010 and 2014, finishing fifth and eighth at nationals in those years, respectively. 

Storylines to Watch

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Will audiences rally behind Rippon?

    There's confidence, and then there's whatever Rippon has displayed throughout his campaign to qualify for his first Olympics berth. Rippon has made headlines for his witty one-liners and cocky assurances throughout his career, such as perhaps his most famous quote: "I'm like a witch, and you can't kill me."

    Rippon was firing on all cylinders as the selection committee deliberated on which skaters it would nominate to compete on Team USA following nationals Saturday night.

    "My mentality going into San Jose is that this is just going to be my coronation," he said leading up to the championship, per Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports. "The only argument [against me] is if other competitors' mothers are on the selection committee."

                   

    Can these Olympics novices handle the pressure?

    2018 marks the first time that Chen, Zhou or Rippon has ever competed in the Olympic Games. Talent only gets you so far under the immense pressure of the Olympics; sometimes the mental obstacles are the hardest to overcome.

    Rippon, with his trademark humor and wit, seems up for the challenge of the press circuit and the scrutiny. But Zhou, a self-described introvert, is trying to become more comfortable in the spotlight, per Elliott Almond of the Mercury News.

    "I'm working on the way I talk, the way I present myself," Zhou said, per Almond.  

                                

    Will the selection committee regret bumping Miner?

    Though he finished second place in nationals on Saturday night, Miner was left off Team USA in favor of Rippon, who had put together a better year of competitions leading up to the U.S. Championships.

    Ironically, the same thing happened to Miner's coach, Mark Mitchell, in 1992 when he finished third at nationals but lost a spot to Todd Eldredge. Mitchell can certainly lend Miner some perspective, but the real question is whether Miner, who will be the second alternate for Team USA, had a better shot at medaling in the 2018 Games than Rippon.

    We'll find out in a month's time. 

How They Compare to US Teams of Old

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    Heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, Team USA is, in a word, inexperienced. 

    Chen, Zhou and Rippon have never skated in the Olympics before. Chen and Zhou, who are 18 and 17 years old, respectively, have limited international experience to begin with, let alone at this level. 

    The last time the U.S. men brought home a singles medal was in Vancouver in 2010, when Evan Lysacek won gold.

    In the 2014 Sochi Games, the U.S. sent only two skaters in the men's singles discipline: Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown.

    Heading into Pyeongchang, Brown, who finished sixth at nationals this year, will now be the first alternate. He would have been the only skater in the nationals field with previous Olympics experience who could have been nominated to Team USA.

What's Team USA's Outlook in Pyeongchang?

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    Team USA men's figure skating hopes for bringing home a medal from Pyeongchang essentially rest on Chen.

    That's not to say that Zhou and Rippon can't put together a winning program at the Olympic Games in February, but it is Chen's aerial ability and unique arsenal of tricks that lend the most strength to the U.S. team.

    As the only male skater in the world who can land five quadruple jumps, Chen has a legitimate shot of bringing home a medal for the first time since Lysacek's gold.

    Because his jumps are difficult and, usually, successful, Chen's maximum potential technical points are higher than either Zhou or Rippon. To that end, they're also higher than most of the competition from around the world that will join him on the ice in Pyeongchang.