Call it the battle of the mighty mites.
Monday evening at the Peaks Ice Arena, two young men, one just into his teenage years, the other still almost a year away from turning 13, waged a grown-up battle on the ice, throwing out triple Lutzes, triple flips, triple-triples and three-jump combinations with poise beyond their years and talent to spare.
When the ice chips settled, it was 12-year-old Vincent Zhou of the All Year Figure Skating Club in Ontario, Calif., who edged defending U.S. junior champion Nathan Chen of Salt Lake City (SLFS) for the junior men’s title at the Pacific Coast Sectional competition.
Of course, both skaters – along with Nix Phengsy of All Year and Shotaro Omori of the Los Angeles FSC – advanced to the U.S. Nationals, where Chen will get another shot at Zhou as he attempts to defend his junior national title.
Skaters from five different classifications are vying for berths to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Sectionals. Top four in each category move on.
“I didn’t expect to win,” said Zhou, who sported a big smile but was also very calm and collected in the face of television and print media interviews, although the 4-foot-9 youngster just turned 12 two weeks ago. “My goal was just to do my best. This is really exciting.”
Chen, also 4-9 and 13 years old as of last May, led after the short program by almost five points, and appeared to seal the victory with a flawless free skate that included a senior-level jump layout, lacking only a triple Axel. Chen, who just became age-eligible for international junior competition in May, set a record in his first Junior Grand Prix competition with 222.0 points in winning the event. But a lower leg injury a couple of weeks later forced him to withdraw from his second GP event. Rather than see if he could get a medical bye to nationals, he chose to compete in Provo.
And he wowed the audience with a three-jump combination, a triple flip-triple toe loop combination, and four other triples, all done late in the program when they would get bonus points. He earned 126.96 for the program, and 193.05 overall. That appeared to be plenty.
But then came Zhou, decked out in a tuxedo shirt and bowtie and using music from Casablanca to good effect. He also had a three-jump combo and a triple-triple combination – his was triple Lutz-triple toe, a slightly more difficult combo – and five other triples. His free skate total of 134.42 was enough to overcome his five-point deficit from the short program and earn the win with a 196.33 score.
The boy from the Pacific coast said Provo’s altitude didn’t bother him.
“I guess I’m kind of strange, because I think I do better at altitude,” he said. “I have really good stamina.”
Zhou said he wasn’t bothered by nerves, and wasn’t surprised to pull out a clean free skate in a sport when hitting everything scheduled in a program with no errors is not common.
“I have a saying I like,” he said. “It is, ‘In practice, beat yourself; in competition, be yourself.’ I do clean programs in practice a lot. I should be able to skate clean in competition.”
Zhou is in his first year at the junior level, while Chen is in his second. Both are too young for Senior international competition, which requires an age of 15. But both appear to be poised to compete for Senior world and Olympic honors for a long time once they become age-eligible.
In other events on Monday, Springville’s Camille Davis still has a shot to earn her second straight trip to nationals, but she has some ground to make up after falling on her first jump in the junior ladies short program. After an entire season of struggling with boots and injury problems, she scored 40.28 on her program and is in sixth place. The top four finishers earn a berth to nationals, and she is about eight points out of fourth, so needs a near-perfect free skate Tuesday (10:30 a.m.) to have a shot at making the top four.
In senior ladies, Vanessa Lam and Courtney Hicks of All Year are 1-2 after the short program, about two points apart. And in senior men, Keegan Messing of the Alaska Association of Figure Skating, scored an eye-popping 80.36 and is comfortably in the lead. Messing was seventh at nationals last season and has a couple of quads in his arsenal. The senior ladies free skate is at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, while the men’s final is as 4:30 p.m.
Also on Monday, Madeline Heritage and Nathaniel Fast won the junior dance competition.