Performing to music from “La Boheme,” Chen scored 115.39 points — breaking the record of 114.13 he had set in 2020 — to take the lead in the short program and move closer to a sixth consecutive national title.
The 22-year-old Chen’s short program included a quad flip and a quad lutz-triple toe loop as he finished ahead of Vincent Zhou’s score of 112.78 and Ilia Malinin’s 103.46 — personal best scores for both those skaters, too.
“This US Championships short program was insane,” said Chen as he reflected on the high-scoring nature of the competition in Nashville.
“Every guy laid down an amazing program, so it’s a huge honor to be up here with these two guys, and I’m happy to start the competition off this way.”
Zhou skated to Josh Groban’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and, like Chen, executed a quad lutz-triple toe loop, while Malinin, making his championship debut, performed to David Cook’s version of “Billie Jean.”
Chen, a three-time world champion, is heavy favorite to take gold at the Beijing Winter Olympics next month, where he will face competition from Japan’s double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
Having placed fifth at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Chen is now in pole position to qualify for Beijing alongside two other male singles skaters ahead of the free skate on Sunday.
Following the 2018 Olympics, Chen embarked on a three-year international winning streak which came to an end with a third-place finish at Skate America in Las Vegas last October.