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Russian pair delights home crowd with ‘amazing moment’

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SOCHI, Russia – If you walked by the Iceberg Skating Palace Wednesday night, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a World Cup-caliber soccer match going on. A very intense soccer match, at that.

But it was figure skating on this night, pairs figure skating in particular, when the host nation’s best chance for individual winners were taking to the ice and the country stood still for three hours, waiting to see if Russia could re-capture a gold medal that it lost at the Vancouver Games four years ago.

If the nation was immovable, the arena itself was shaking with anticipation as Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov took to the ice, the leaders after the short program. A roar burst through the packed facility that is not heard often in figure skating, a sport that prides itself on grace and power, not fist-pumping and screams.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

A host-nation pair had not won a gold medal at the Olympics in 78 years, since Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier climbed to the top of the podium in 1936 at the Games in Germany; World War II was just gaining steam.

The home-ice advantage – the shaking walls and unfurled red, white and blue flags numbering in the hundreds – all waited for the moment to crown new Olympic champions. But first they had to skate.

“It was hard to skate in front of our people,” Trankov told NBCOlympics.com after their win. “We’ve never had an audience like this in our lives. It was amazing moment when we finished our program.”

“The pressure helped us,” Volosozhar added. “It pushed us to skate better.”

VIDEO: “Strength and power” led Russia to silver as well

While the crowd roared for Volosozhar/Trankov, the applause was muted for their German rivals Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who came into the free skate in second place and needed to land their difficult throw triple Axel (as well as skate a clean program) in order to capture the gold.

“We are in Russia and Russian skaters are on the ice,” shrugged Szolkowy after his team fell – literally – to bronze. “It would be the same if we were in Germany and it was German skaters … at least I hope.”

Szolkowy fell early on a jump, not completing a side-by-side with Savchenko. The crowd at that moment let out a sudden yet sure cheer, obviously elated that its gold-medal hopes were assured with a German blip.

“After I came back up to my feet, of course I noticed the crowd was cheering,” said Szolkowy. “And that helped us through the next element.”

VIDEO: Fall derails Szolkowy and Savchenko

It couldn’t carry them through the throw triple Axel, however, an element that – should they have executed it – would have helped them be in contention for silver. Instead, that medal went to another Russian pair, Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov.

“At least they clapped after our performance,” Szolkowy added. “You felt the arena was packed and you felt that everyone was here to support at least some of the guys. For me, it was great.”

After winning gold in 12 straight Olympic Games in the pairs events – dating back to Innsbruck 1964 – Russia not only lost that stronghold on first place in Vancouver, it didn’t land one team on the podium. The Sochi Games was seen as a redemption moment for Volosozhar/Trankov, but also the Russian pairs institution as a whole.

“Of course we remember Vancouver, but that was another life,” Trankov said. “Here, it was a situation that was completely changed. We weren’t fighting for just a medal, but for gold.”

VIDEO: Watch Castelli and Shnapir’s “Skyfall” routine

It was fitting that Volosozhar and Trankov were wearing gold on this night: he a buzzed-about pair of golden pants he had donned all season for their “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, and she a newly-revealed gold dress.

As she walked by a group of young Russian girls in the hallway backstage, they squealed in delight, Tatyana stopping to wave. On this night, gold-medal winners treated like rock stars in an arena – and a country – that roared with approval.

Nathan Chen lands record 5 quads for U.S. title, believes Olympic gold is possible

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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen wanted to put U.S. men’s figure skating back on the world stage after a seven-year medal drought. He chose this week’s U.S. Championships to try to become the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in one program.

The 17-year-old wunderkind landed all of them cleanly en route to the best performance in nationals history Sunday.

A record score (318.47 points; previous best was 274.98 under a 12-year-old judging system). A record winning margin (55.44 points; previous best was 32.71). The youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.

Consider the message sent to the world.

Now, is an Olympic gold medal possible in PyeongChang in 13 months?

“I believe it’s possible, yeah,” Chen said after bringing the curtain down at the U.S. Championships on Sunday. “It’s still in the distance for me. There’s so much room I have to improve to make myself at that level, but I think it’s definitely possible.”

In terms of jumping, Chen needs no improvement. Previously one of a few men to land four quads in one program, Chen now stands alone. He landed seven quads between two programs at Sprint Center, including four different quads in the free skate.

Chen next goes to the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue next month, and then the World Championships in Helsinki in late March. No U.S. man has earned a worlds medal since Evan Lysacek‘s title in 2009. Chen can end that drought.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen, the youngest of five children whose parents emigrated from Beijing, said of the U.S. men after the short program. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

Maybe others will join Chen in the future, but for now he is the only American medal contender.

He’s joined on the world championships team by Jason Brown, who attempted zero quads this week but hopes to add one or two for worlds after getting over a Dec. 16 stress fracture in his right fibula.

Back to Chen.

The Salt Lake City native who started skating at age 3 on a 2002 Olympic practice rink first put the world on notice at the Grand Prix Final in December.

That’s the second-biggest annual figure skating competition. And the most exclusive, taking the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix season.

He struggled in the short program, falling on one quad and stepping out of the landing of the other. Cut him some slack. It was his first time skating under that kind of pressure.

But Chen dazzled in the free skate, landing all four quads for the top score that day and a silver medal overall. He bettered Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by 10 points and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain by 20 points. Hanyu tried four quads, falling on one. Fernandez tried two quads.

Chen came home from France and set out on improving upon that free skate by re-adding a quadruple Salchow to his quad Lutz, quad flip and two quad toe loops.

“It’s something that I knew I was capable of doing,” Chen said. “It wasn’t exactly a game-time decision [for nationals], but I prepared it, and it was something I was ready to do.”

He actually tried all five at his first two events this season but fell twice in each program. It was an audacious move to go for, given it marked Chen’s first competitions since January hip surgery that kept him off the ice for five and a half months.

“Life often tests us, it puts us through examinations, and Nathan gets all sorts of scrutiny from it, too,” his coach Rafael Arutyunyan, said recently. “But this young man walks out of all such pressing situations as the winner. He behaves like a real man.”

Chen’s timing, breaking out one season before the Olympics, just about matches his talent. He’s creating buzz not seen in U.S. men’s skating since 2010.

Which brings this to mind: Seven years ago, a 10-year-old Chen was the youngest skater at the U.S. Championships.

Chen could barely see over the boards, but he won the novice division and brought an exhibition gala crowd to its feet and sheepishly said he thought he would be at the Olympics in 2018.

A month later, American Evan Lysacek won the Vancouver Olympic title without attempting a quadruple jump, beating noted quad practitioner Yevgeny Plushenko. Chen calls Plushenko his favorite childhood skater.

Figure skating scores are of course about more than how many times one rotates in the air (from the landings of those jumps to artistry and more), but the result was slammed by some as setting the sport back. The 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic champions had all landed quads.

Canadian Elvis Stojko, the 1994 and 1998 Olympic silver medalist, said as much in a Yahoo Sports column titled, “The night they killed figure skating.”

U.S. men’s figure skating went dormant after Lysacek’s victory. They have not earned a world championships medal since.

At the 2014 Olympics, the top U.S. finisher was Brown in ninth. Brown did not attempt a quad, but the top eight men did. Every year from 2013 through 2016, the U.S. Championships crowned a new men’s champion. None of them have proven dependable when it comes to clean quad jumping.

“We’ve kind of not had the results we should have had over the past few years,” Chen said in a press conference Sunday, sitting next to Brown.

Meanwhile, Chen continued to rack up novice and junior titles while training ballet (“I enjoyed it more for a social aspect than an actual artistic aspect”) and playing hockey. He no longer plays hockey and cut back on the ballet.

In November 2014, Chen landed his first quadruple toe loop in competition. He’s added three more quads in the last two years working in Los Angeles under Arutyunyan, the Armenian who also coaches U.S. women’s silver and bronze medalists Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell.

Then, last year, he became the youngest man to finish in the U.S. Championships top three since 1973 (and the first U.S. man to land four quads in one program). Chen aggravated a hip injury later that night in the exhibition gala and needed surgery. He couldn’t walk without a brace for two months. No World Championships.

Chen spent weeks away from Arutyunyan this fall, working in Michigan with Marina Zoueva, who guided the last two Olympic ice dance champions. Chen wanted to improve his artistic marks. He’s done that, and since going back to Arutyunyan around Thanksgiving has incredibly upped his jumping game as well.

Chen followed his record free skate Sunday by sitting down for an interview with the in-arena announcer. The leftover crowd applauded, and then Chan was nonchalantly asked what he was up to.

“Not much,” Chen said, “just skating on a normal sunny day.”

MORE: Gracie Gold splits with coach Frank Carroll

Gracie Gold splits with coach Frank Carroll

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KANSAS CITY — Gracie Gold is splitting with coach Frank Carroll.

The news comes a day after Gold finished a career-low sixth at the U.S. Championships and missed the world championships team.

Icenetwork.com confirmed the news, quoting Carroll. It’s unknown who Gold’s next coach will be, but she’s expected to move back to the Chicago area and/or Michigan.

“There will be a change,” Carroll said, according to Icenetwork.com. “But you can’t just say goodbye. It’s got to be worked out intelligently and legally when we get home.”

Gold later released a statement.

“I am surprised that Frank announced his decision before informing me,” Gold said. “I continue to have the utmost respect for Frank Carroll and his legacy. He took me on during a very vulnerable time, and I am forever grateful for our work together. Despite my sadness in missing this world championships, I will benefit with extra time entering the Olympic season. I plan to use it well.”

Gold had been coached by Carroll since 2013, after she left her Chicago-area coach, Alex Ouriashev, about six months before the Sochi Olympics.

She moved to Los Angeles to work with Carroll and, with Carroll, finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics and 2015 and 2016 World Championships.

Asked about a potential change of training location Saturday night, Gold said this:

“I don’t have any plans of that nature yet,” she said. “You guys will be the first to know.”

Gold’s struggles since topping the 2016 World Championships short program have been well-documented. She fell to fourth after the worlds free skate, detached from the sport in the summer and mulled sitting out the fall season.

She competed anyway, posted her worst results in four years and made a desperate call to Ouriashev and worked with him for two weeks after Christmas before returning to Carroll before nationals.

“I think we did a pretty good job together, and then we had one complete disaster at the end of last year (worlds), which to me wasn’t horrible, being fourth in the world and first in the short program,” Carroll said, according to Icenetwork.

Carroll was a longtime coach of Michelle Kwan and also coached Evan Lysacek to 2010 Olympic gold.

VIDEO: Ashley Wagner has emotional press conference moment