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

Leave a comment

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.

MORE: Javier Fernandez builds to last Olympic chance

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!