The ninth man to earn at least that many U.S. championships in a row, and the first since Brian Boitano completed that kind of quad in 1988, Chen hit four quadruple jumps and six triples in his routine that had the crowd on its feet long before it concluded.
“It's a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to sort of follow in their footsteps," Chen said, mentioning Dick Button, Scott Hamilton and Boitano. “They did amazing things well beyond what I have accomplished.""
Chen, 20, has not lost a competition since a dismal short program at the 2018 Olympics ruined any chance at a medal. He's won two world championships and three Grand Prix Finals crowns altogether. Plus the four U.S. titles as he continues raising the standards for men's skating even as he attends Yale full time.
“Each time you win, you gain more confidence," said Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and a two-time world winner. “After Nathan won his first world championship, on ice he was like a different man. He has become a dominator, yet in an understated way, too. He learned so much in that short program at the Olympics and kept that in his head. He has not made those mistakes again. That's part of his toughness and sense of accomplishment."
Chen also owns a bronze medal from the team event at Pyeongchang and will be a favorite for a third successive victory at worlds in Montreal in March. Joining him there will be Jason Brown and possibly Tomoki Hiwatashi, who finished second and third respectively.
The last American man to win three consecutive world titles was Scott Hamilton with his fourth in a row in 1984. “No one is perfect, even if you're undefeated for a large number of times," he said. “In the next competition, you never know what will happen."
Chen, who listens more to the Beatles than to Elton John, still has become quite familiar with everything from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to “Bennie and the Jets," which he incorporated in his program. He even wondered after his performance about maybe chatting with John about the routine.
“I was never enveloped by his music but everyone knows his name and the impact he has had on the world in so many aspects," Chen said. Brown won the 2015 national championship here in Greensboro and a 2014 team bronze at the Sochi Olympics. He has impressively improved his technical skills since linking up in Canada with renowned coach Brian Orser, who trains two-time Olympic winner Yuzuru Hanyu. He's always had the kind of artistry that can mesmerize.
“It was like jumping into the fire," Brown said of joining the stable of world-class skaters with Orser and fellow coach Tracy Wilson. “It was intimidating, but sometimes you reach out and embrace what is intimidating."
He's done so enough to become a podium challenger in most events. Hiwatashi, 20, did some mesmerizing of his own in moving up from fifth in the short program. At the end of his exhausting routine, the 2019 junior world champion who was fourth at nationals a year ago raised his open hand to the sky as the crowd stood and applauded. He landed two quads and seven triples to grab his spot for Montreal.
“I'm just really happy for my performance and excited for what is coming up," said Hiwatashi, who was passed over by the federation for worlds. Vincent Chou, a 2018 Olympian, and Brown were chosen to join Chen.