Nathan Chen, quad king, ups ante at world championships; men’s preview

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Nathan Chen landed a record seven quadruple jumps at each of his two most recent competitions. He may try for eight this week in a bid to become the youngest men’s world champion of all time.

The 17-year-old wunderkind, who spent two months last year in a leg brace, is the star attraction of the world figure skating championships in Helsinki.

Chen is certainly a favorite to earn the first U.S. men’s worlds medal since 2009.

He’s arguably the man to beat for gold, coming in with the highest total score in the world this season.

That mark was set at his most recent competition last month, the Four Continents Championships, where Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea.

Chen faced repeated questions about gold medals in a media call last week and refused to bite on outside expectations.

“This is my first worlds,” he stressed, twice. “It’s already in itself a big stepping stone for me to be at my first world championships and competing against everyone together in one event. This is the same people, basically, who will be competing at the Olympics. But a lot can change, as you’ve seen with me, in the course of year.”

Chen, the 10-year-old darling of the 2010 U.S. Championships, would have made his senior worlds debut last season. But he aggravated a hip injury at the U.S. Championships exhibition gala in January 2016. He needed surgery. It took two months before he could walk without a brace.

Now, after rehab and a steady rise of a season, Chen downplays talk of possibly toppling Hanyu and two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

“From a technical aspect, of course, I think I’m at that level to be able to make the podium, at least,” Chen said. “But it just really depends on what [other skaters] do and how clean I’m able to perform.”

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It was believed that if Chen landed his record seven quadruple jumps between two clean programs — like he did at nationals in January and Four Continents in February — and Hanyu has two clean programs, then Hanyu wins.

But on Monday, Chen showed in practice that he may attempt an additional quad in his free skate.

On the same day, major Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun ran a story hyping a Chen-Hanyu clash at worlds with an infographic comparing the two skaters’ scores from Four Continents.

“I’m not going into the competition scared that I’ll be outdone [by Chen],” Hanyu said, according to the newspaper’s translation (though it is unclear if they are recent comments or from last month). “Rather, I want to go for perfection.”

Hanyu, who broke scoring world records last season, has not been perfect this season.

He had major jumping errors at December’s Grand Prix Final (where a clean Chen outscored him in the free skate) and in both programs at Four Continents (where Chen topped him in the short program).

If Chen does eight quads, that’s two more than Hanyu’s typical total this season, and three more than Fernandez, but skating is not all about jumps. The veterans can still outpoint Chen in other areas.

Chen proved last month he can handle the pressure. He competed on the 2018 Olympic rink right after Hanyu posted the highest free-skate score in the world this season. Chen, cushioned by a short-program lead, did enough in his five-quad program to hold off Hanyu’s charge.

Chen landed his first quadruple jump at age 15 and by last season was up to four quads in a free skate. Now, he could try six quads in his free in Helsinki.

“Even when I was younger, I never really saw an end to where we could take jumps,” said Chen, the youngest of five children to parents who emigrated from Beijing. “But I never really thought that I would be doing the stuff that I’m doing.”

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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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Five women’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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As Rio gold medalists decide on their futures, this week’s P&G Championships mark the first showcase for a new class of U.S. women’s gymnasts.

For the first time since 2008, nobody in the nationals field in Anaheim has competed at an Olympics. Usually, a gymnast or two carries over into the post-Olympic year, like Bridget Sloan in 2009 and Kyla Ross in 2013.

But this year, the feeling is akin to 2005, when no woman (or man) from the 2004 Athens Games chalked up at nationals.

Back then, a 15-year-old Nastia Liukin, who had already starred in a commercial during the 2004 Olympics, made her senior nationals debut and won the all-around. Three years later, Liukin won the Olympic all-around in Beijing.

There will be talk this week of finding the next Liukin, or Gabby Douglas, or Simone Biles, who, like Liukin, won her senior nationals debut the year after the Olympics.

“Some of them [from Rio], hopefully Simone, will be coming back, but I think this is a great opportunity for some of these girls to go out there and prove that they’re just as ready to compete at a world championships,” said Liukin, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “They have to step up a little bit and kind of become the leaders.”

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Gymnasts this week are vying to impress new U.S. national team coordinator Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father). The four-woman roster for October’s worlds, where there is no team event, will be named after a selection camp later this summer.

Five gymnasts to watch at the P&G Championships:

Ragan Smith
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 AT&T American Cup champion

The Texan performed admirably in her first senior season in 2016, placing fifth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials. Her best events are balance beam and floor exercise, but the U.S. needed uneven bars help in Rio. So she went to the Games as an alternate at age 15, making headlines for this photo with 6-foot-11 basketball player DeAndre Jordan.

Smith, coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, emerged this year as the U.S.’ most reliable all-arounder and clear favorite this week. She won the American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. A definite all-around medal favorite at October’s worlds.

Ashton Locklear
Rio Olympic alternate
2014 World team champion

Locklear was beaten for the Olympic team bars specialist spot by Madison Kocian after nearly matching Kocian in scores in four routines between last year’s P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old is not considered an all-around threat this week but is favored to make the world team based on her bars ability. She was fourth in the event at 2014 Worlds.

Riley McCusker
2017 Jesolo Trophy all-around winner

McCusker, who has the same coach as Laurie Hernandez, struggled at the American Cup in her first senior competition, falling on bars and beam. She rebounded to win Jesolo a month later and remain in the mix as the No. 2 U.S. all-arounder (Smith wasn’t at Jesolo).

However, McCusker was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July and said she expected to be back to peak form in September, not August.

Morgan Hurd
2017 Stuttgart World Cup bronze medalist

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, was adopted from China as a toddler and now lives with her mom in Delaware.

Liukin, asked to name gymnasts to watch this week, started with Hurd, whom she says has the highest floor exercise start value in the world. “She could be capable of winning a world all-around medal and possibly become a world champion on floor,” Liukin said.

Jade Carey
2017 U.S. Classic vault winner

The U.S. has a tradition of sending a vault specialist to worlds, but neither of the top vaulters from the last Olympic cycle — Biles nor MyKayla Skinner — is competing this week. Enter Carey, a 17-year-old who wasn’t an elite gymnast before this season.

Carey performed the difficult Amanar vault at July’s U.S. Classic, where she was the only gymnast to perform two vaults, which is required to compete for medals on the event at worlds.

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