Sean Rabbitt performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel
January 22, 2017

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) �� Nathan Chen stood on the top step of the podium and stifled a smile as U.S. Figure Skating president Samuel Auxier, preparing to drape a gold medal around his neck, bowed down before him.

Indeed, all hail the new king of American skating.

Chen followed a record-setting short program with a near-flawless free skate featuring five quadruple jumps Sunday to become the youngest men's U.S. figure skating champion in more than five decades.

The 17-year-old Chen, performing to "The Polovtsian Dances," became the first skater in the world to land five clean quads in competition. The result was a free skate score of 212.08 - more than the composite of several rivals - and finished with a 318.47 total that put him well clear of the competition.

"That was an amazing performance. I'm really happy with what I did," Chen said. "Component-wise, I kind of faltered a little bit. That stuff happens when you're pushing these secondary elements to the max. It's definitely something that I'm looking forward to working on improve for worlds."

Hard to imagine things getting a whole lot better.

Chen's aerial showcase began with a quad lutz-triple toe combination and never slowed down, his only bobble coming on a triple flip-triple toe as his sprightly program was coming to an end.

By that point, his coach Rafael Arutunian was already shaking his fists in celebration.

Sixteen-year-old Vincent Zhou missed on his first quad but was clean the rest of the way, even if the youngster lacked some of the polish of his peers. His total of 263.03 earned him the silver medal.

Jason Brown skated a smooth, stylish routine to move into the bronze medal position.

One of the threats to Chen's new throne was unable to compete in Kansas City.

Reigning champion Adam Rippon was warming up for practice two weeks ago when he landed on his left foot and heard a crunch. X-rays and an MRI exam revealed a sprain and a broken bone, which will keep him off the ice for up to three months and effectively end his season.

That also means Rippon will be forced to play cheerleader during the world championships, hoping his fellow Americans do well enough to secure the U.S. three spots at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Former champ Max Aaron, the silver medalist a year ago, took himself out of the running at nationals with a poor short program. He also struggled in the free skate and wound up ninth.

The crowd favorite, Brown showed how far he's come since a stress fracture in his right fibula with a performance to "The Scent of Love" that showcased his trademark elegance. He also proved that his injury is no longer an issue, landing a series of triples that brought stuffed animals raining to the ice.

He skated off with a teddy bear just smaller than a Volvo.

"What's so different is, every single practice that I've done here, I've gained more strength. I've continued to learn and grow," Brown said. "We knew I wasn't going to be 100 percent."

Chen followed a few minutes later with a performance that not only stamped him as one of the favorites heading into the world championships in March, but perhaps next year's Winter Olympics.

Sidelined five months by a hip injury, Chen landed four quads during a clean short program to score a U.S. record 106.39 points. But that merely served as an appetizer to his free skate, where he added another quad to the four he was planning to attempt. And he landed them with such ease that he was hardly breathing heavily by the time he skated to the center of the ice to soak in a standing ovation.

While the performance was stunning, his spot on the podium was hardly surprising.

Chen has been considered the future of American skating for years, and his performance at the Grand Prix Final in France last month appeared to validate it. He topped Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in the free skate and finished the competition second overall.

He topped his own performance by literal leaps and bounds on Sunday.

"The U.S. is back on the map, on the world stage," Chen said, looking at Zhou and Brown alongside him on a dais. "With us three, we'll push the U.S. back to where they should be."

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