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Omori's triples trump Zhou's wizardry in short

Defending U.S. junior men's champion Chen settles for third place

Shotaro Omori rode a triple Axel into the lead in the men's short program.
Shotaro Omori rode a triple Axel into the lead in the men's short program. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2013) - Someone crashed the party at the much-anticipated junior men's showdown between defending champion Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the U.S. novice champion.

His name is Shotaro Omori, and he skated the short program of his life to jump out to a 3.56-point lead over Zhou at the 2013 U.S. Championships. A clearly off-his-game Chen fought through a stomach virus to place third.

Omori, the first skater of the event, set the standard with a gorgeous triple Axel, followed by a solid triple Lutz-triple toe combination and triple flip. He didn't miss a rotation in his spins or a beat in his steps, and his "in-betweens" included a lovely spread eagle as lead-in to a triple flip.

The 17-year-old, who trains under Tammy Gambill in Riverside, Calif., will bring 69.87 points into Tuesday's free skate.

"It definitely was my best short ever, and I was happy to do it at U.S. nationals," Omori said. "I really wanted to make sure I came here with the right mindset. Before, I wasn't focusing on what I needed to do to complete an element, but at this competition, I really wanted to do that, and it's worked well so far."

Omori hit the triple Axel in his short program at a local competition this summer, but did not land the jump in his shorts at his two Junior Grand Prix events this fall. He placed fourth at both competitions.

His coach, Tammy Gambill, thinks the uptick in Omaha, Neb., is all a matter of focus.

"He got the triple Axel back in the spring, and he did one each at his JGPs in the long programs, but not in the shorts," she said. "It's good he got it out there. He's been training really hard, and we've worked on staying focused and in the moment. This will give him a lot of confidence to do the Axel in his free skate."

Omori shares the ice with Zhou, and according to Gambill, the two are great pals and friendly rivals.

"My whole group cheers for each other and pushes each other," she said. "Sometimes, it's just fun for me to just sit back and watch."

Zhou, too, skated a career-best short, spinning like a whirling dervish and hitting two big jump elements -- his triple Lutz-triple toe combination and triple flip -- in the second half of his Sorcerer's Apprentice program.

"It's a personal best score for me, so I'm pretty happy," the diminutive 12-year-old said. "It adds to my confidence for the long."

Cindy Stuart's playful choreography helps bring out the mischievous side of Zhou, who loves to play to a crowd.

"I think about my character, the sorcerer's apprentice, and work my magic out there," Zhou said. "I think that consistency [in training] plays a big part; it gives me confidence I can do the big tricks and still focus on the character."

The difference between Omori and Zhou, in addition to Omori's greater maturity, is a triple Axel. Zhou did just a double, with a base value of 3.30 points, versus Omori's triple, valued at 8.50 points. According to Gambill, her younger prodigy is getting closer to the jump all the time.

"He has made quite a bit of progress on the triple Axel; it's just not ready for this season," she said. "We're hoping by next year we will be able to put it in the short and the long. That is our goal.

"There's no rush; he is only 12, but he gets bored if he doesn't start doing something different. He will ask, 'Can I do this jump with my hand over my head?' and I'll say, 'Yes, but other things, you're not allowed to try yet.' We want to make sure he is strong enough and mature enough to handle the stress."

Chen, who won at JGP Austria early this season with an eye-popping 222 points, opened his short with a double Axel, fell at the end of his step sequence and then under-rotated the second jump in a triple Lutz-triple toe combination. His 63.60 points put him more than nine points off the lead.

The 13-year-old did not talk to reporters in the mix zone and skipped the draw for Tuesday's free skate. Rafael Arutunian, who coaches the skater in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., informed U.S. Figure Skating that Chen was suffering from a stomach virus that began Sunday morning.

The ill-timed virus is Chen's second misfortune this season. He suffered a setback in early October, when a lower leg injury forced him to withdraw from his second JGP event, losing a chance to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Jimmy Ma, a 17-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., skated a crisp and clean tango short to place fourth with 57.88 points. He landed a triple Lutz-double toe and triple flip.