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Nathan Chen stumbles to surprising fourth, while Vincent Zhou leads at Skate America

U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou holds the lead at 2021 Skate America after the men's short program.

LAS VEGAS -- It was an unfamiliar scene during the men’s short program press conference at Skate America on Friday night.

2018 U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou sat in the middle - in the lead halfway through the event - with Japan’s Shoma Uno to his left and fellow American Jimmy Ma on his right.

Nathan Chen was nowhere to be found.

It was the first time since the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics that Chen was not in the top three following either the short program or free skate at an individual figure skating competition he’s entered.

The three-time reigning world champion is in fourth going into Saturday’s free skate.

His score of 82.89 points is 1.63 out of podium position and a far - but reachable for him - 14.54 from first.

“Of course I’m worried,” Chen said. “I’m human, I feel fear. I get anxious before events, but that’s normal. So far, fortunately, I’ve had enough experience dealing with that. Clearly it didn’t show today, and I think I have a lot to learn from this experience. I really enjoy what I do, so I think that overpowers everything.”

The 22-year-old fell on his opening quadruple lutz and stepped out on a quad flip that was intended to be a quad flip-triple toe loop combination.

The mistakes leave his undefeated streak that dates back to March 2018 - 13 in-person individual competitions - in jeopardy.

“I have a lot of events going forward this season,” Chen said of his short program to Benjamin Clementine‘s “Eternity” and “Nemesis.” “It’s not like this is the one opportunity I have to perform the short program, so I’ll prepare literally as much as I can and go forward.

“I’m human, I make mistakes and unfortunately it happened today. It happens; just learn from it, grow from it.”

Including the 13 aforementioned events, this is just the third time Chen is not leading after the short. He was third at the 2018 France Grand Prix and the 2021 World Championships.

Zhou, meanwhile, is having to get used to the spotlight.

“It’s pretty unexpected that I’m sitting in the middle,” he said to open the press conference. “I’m going to take this into tomorrow and move forward.”

Zhou’s score of 97.43 points included an opening quad lutz-triple toe loop combination, followed by a quad salchow in his performance to Josh Groban‘s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” program, which he held on to from last season.

“I think I did a good job tonight performing the program and showing some of the great things we’ve been doing in training,” he said. “I can skate even better and I’ve been competing pretty consistently this season, so this is just another building block.”

Zhou won his two early season events - the Cranberry Cup International and Nebelhorn Trophy, his first Challenger Series victory, quickly redeeming himself from how he ended last season.

The 2019 world bronze medalist, who will turn 21 on Monday, placed 25th in Stockholm and was one spot out of even qualifying for the free skate.

At Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in early September, Zhou’s win helped ensure the U.S. will send three men to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

Uno, who won the silver medal at the last Olympics, is on track to earn his first Grand Prix medal in three years. He had medaled at all of his Grand Prix assignments for four years in a row - plus the Grand Prix Final each of those seasons - before struggling in 2019 and placing eighth in France and fourth in Russia.

His short, which scored 89.07, started with a double flip instead of a quad.

Aside from Chen, Ma’s performance and score of 84.52 was one of the biggest surprises of the night.

The 26-year-old was at Skate America in both 2018 and 2020, his only two career Grand Prix assignments, and placed 12th and 10th.

“I definitely was not expecting to be up here tonight,” Ma said. “My main goal in this competition was to leave my heart out there. I didn’t want to have any regrets. ... It’s great to be up here.”

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