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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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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