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.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Three-time Olympic champion and world mile record-holder Peter Snell has died in Dallas. He was aged 80.
Snell, who is regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all-time, won the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics aged 21, and the 800m-1500m double at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
He was the first man since 1920 to win the 800m and 1500m at the same Olympics. No male athlete has done so since.
Snell also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in the 880 yards and mile at Perth in 1962.
He twice held the mile world record and also held world records in the 800m, 880 yards, 1000m, and the 4xmile relay.
Snell’s death was confirmed by family friend and New Zealand sports historian Ron Palenski, who heads New Zealand’s Sport Hall of Fame.
“It is very sad news, a grievous loss for New Zealand,” Palenski said. “In terms of track and field, he is probably the greatest athlete New Zealand has had.”
Snell was coached by Arthur Lydiard, an innovator who was regarded as one of the world’s finest coaches of middle and long distance athletes. Lydiard also coached Murray Halberg to win the 5000m at Rome in 1960.
Snell’s wife, Miki, said he died suddenly at his home in Dallas around noon on Thursday. He had been suffering from a heart ailment and had required a pacemaker for several years.
Snell’s athletics career was relatively short. He retired in 1965 to pursue educational opportunities in the United States.
Snell graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and later with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Washington State University.
He became a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1981, later becoming director of the university’s Human Performance Center.
Snell was knighted by New Zealand in 2009. A statue in his honor stands at Cooks Gardens, Whanganui, near his birthplace of Opunake, where he broke the mile world record for the first time in 1962.
Grand Prix Final results show women’s figure skating revolution progressing quickly
The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.
That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.
What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.
This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.
There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.
Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.
What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.
And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.
A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.
No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:
*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.
*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.
*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.
Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.
And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.
Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.
Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.
According to a Eurosport summary of the interview, Zagitova said she needed to find new motivation to continue competing. The story quoted her as saying she intended to do shows and keep training under her longtime coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches the Troika.
Zagitova also said she intended to learn new elements and ways to go into jumps.
“I need to find the desire to want to go into a competition,” she said, according to a translation. “The athletes who have gone down that road will understand me.”
Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.
Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.
And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.
Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.
Yet Tennell presses on.
“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”
About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.
Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.
The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)
“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.
“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.
“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”
In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.
“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.
So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.
With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.
So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.
And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.
“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”
(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)
Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.
“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”
For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.
And it seems surreal.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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