Nathan Chen, once the darling boy of U.S. figure skating, is now a leading man

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In January 2010, a 10-year-old Nathan Chen skated off the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships exhibition gala to a standing ovation.

Chen had rocked his performance to “Peter and the Wolf,” wearing a bright red outfit with blue pants, looking like a Toy Soldier. At 4 feet, 5 inches, he was slightly taller than the rink boards.

Chen had earned a spot in the exhibition with Vancouver Olympians by winning the U.S. novice title six days earlier. The youngest of five siblings had started skating at age 3 in his hometown of Salt Lake City, at a 2002 Olympic practice rink, and also trained ballet and played hockey.

“We’ll be seeing a lot more of this young man, that’s for sure,” 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton said on the NBC broadcast from Spokane, Wash., six years ago.

Sandra Bezic, a longtime Canadian choreographer and commentator, remarked on the show that Chen wouldn’t be age eligible for the Olympics until 2018.

“Remember that name,” Bezic said.

Chen, now 17 years old, has become the name in U.S. men’s figure skating going into this week’s Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France. He qualified into the six-man event as the world’s fifth-best skater in the fall Grand Prix series, best by an American in five years.

“I’m trying to place myself among the top,” Chen said by phone before flying to Marseille. “I’m glad I have the opportunity.”

Chen was confined to a hospital bed for a week 10 months ago and off the ice for months.

On Jan. 24, he aggravated a left hip injury 15 seconds into his U.S. Championships exhibition gala skate — the same event where he melted hearts in Spokane six years earlier — and had to be wheeled away from the Xcel Energy Center rink in St. Paul, Minn.

Chen was taken to the emergency room, underwent X-Rays and was told he needed surgery. He wouldn’t be able to compete again that winter or spring.

“That was kind of devastating,” said Chen, who had an avulsion injury, meaning a piece of bone tore away from the main part of the bone, not uncommon for a growth-spurting teenager. “I was thinking, how am I going to get back on the ice as fast as possible?”

Hours before the exhibition, Chen had won the U.S. bronze medal and qualified for the world championships team. He landed two quadruple jumps in his short program and four in his free skate. Both firsts for an American.

Chen was the youngest man to make the top three at nationals in 43 years. He represented a shot in the arm for U.S. men’s skating in the middle of its longest international medal lull since the 1970s.

“I had distinctive sights on what I wanted to accomplish,” at nationals, Chen said. “I wanted to make the world team.”

Chen had come to St. Paul with a left hip injury but skated two electric, quad-filled programs without pain. Maybe it was the preventative physical therapy. Or adrenalin.

After his free skate, Chen went through drug testing and a change of costume for the exhibition.

Chen had no time to warm-up, was shivering and says now he really wasn’t ready to perform in the gala, but he doesn’t blame anybody for what happened.

“I just felt like it was something I had to do,” Chen said. “I always kind of use my exhibitions as a redemption to an extent, if things didn’t quite go the way I wanted to in competition.”

Chen, who had fallen on a triple Axel in his free skate, aborted his exhibition program after 15 seconds, botching his opening triple toe loop attempt in discomfort from the takeoff.

Chen pressed his left hip, grimaced and hobbled to the boards, which he was tall enough to lean over after growing a foot since 2010.

A wheelchair arrived, Chen eased into it and was pushed out of sight. He wouldn’t be seen in competition again until October.

It was hard to know what to expect out of Chen this fall, but he quickly put the injury behind him.

In his first event back, Chen attempted five quads in his free skate, one more than at nationals. He fell three times over two programs but still won a lower-level event in Finland over three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada.

He made his Grand Prix debut the next month, finishing fourth and second in France and Japan. In Japan, Chen posted the highest total score by an American under the decade-old judging system. He also had an epiphany practicing on the same ice as Yuzuru Hanyu.

“I was like, oh crap, this is the Olympic champion,” Chen said. “This is pretty sick.”

Chen’s season is even more remarkable considering he spent two months away from his California-based coach, Rafael Arutunian. It was Arutunian who helped develop Chen into a jumping phenom.

But Chen needed to improve his artistic skills, spins and footwork. He flew to Michigan and learned from choreographer Marina Zoueva, who guided the last two Olympic ice dancing champions. But he never forgot Arutunian’s training.

“I can hear him in my head,” said Chen, whose ability to land clean quads this season has been a coin flip. “I know what he would say to certain things when I make certain mistakes.”

Chen returned to Arutunian after NHK Trophy, training for two weeks ahead of the Grand Prix Final. He predicted he would have to combat nerves skating in Marseille, beginning Thursday, in the biggest event of his young career.

“I’m not completely satisfied with the way I’m skating lately,” Chen said.

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

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