Nathan Chen wins Skate America, apologizes (video)

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LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Nathan Chen nodded, shook a mini stuffed tiger and patted his coach on the back after seeing his worst free skate score in 13 months.

“I’m sorry, Raf,” Chen told his coach, gruff Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan. “The fall, it was stupid. I need to work harder.”

Chen, the 18-year-old wunderkind of U.S. figure skating, won Skate America on Saturday to remain the only undefeated male skater this Olympic season.

But he looked very beatable. Chen fell once (nearly twice), singled an Axel and winced after his 4-minute, 30-second free skate at Herb Brooks Arena.

“We’ve worked really hard, and I definitely did not show it tonight,” Chen said later. “So I apologized.”

His score: 171.46 points for the free skate.

Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion but not an Olympic medal favorite like Chen, outscored his training partner by 5.65 points on Saturday.

But Chen’s 15-point lead from Friday’s short program, where he scored a personal best, allowed him to hang on for the title, comfortably by nine points overall.

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Arutyunyan said Chen is skating through many challenges, according to Icenetwork.com.

“Technique, and confidence, and blades and injuries, so many things around,” he said, according to the website. “We cannot talk about everything because it is very private, and we are working on it.”

Rippon incredibly hung on for silver after popping his dislocated right shoulder back into place following a near fall on his opening quadruple Lutz.

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Chen and Rippon are going to the Grand Prix Final in two weeks. There in Japan, the top six skaters per discipline from this fall’s Grand Prix series face off in the single biggest indicator of Olympic medal prospects.

They’ll be joined by world silver and bronze medalists Shoma Uno (Japan) and Jin Boyang (China), plus Russians Mikhail Kolyada and Sergey Voronov.

The men who won’t be at the Grand Prix Final are even more accomplished — all three 2014 Olympic medalists (including the injured Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada) and the 2015 and 2016 World champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

Chan and Fernandez each struggled in the first of their two scheduled Grand Prix starts, with Chan pulling out of his second.

Their absences further open the door for Chen, who was sixth at last season’s worlds with boot problems, to notch the biggest win of his young senior career.

Then in February, Chen can become the youngest individual Olympic male figure skating medalist since Viktor Petrenko in 1988. Or the youngest gold medalist since Dick Button in 1948.

VIDEO: Skater dislocates shoulder in Skate America fall

Rippon, meanwhile, looks like a favorite to make his first Olympic team at age 28, after qualifying for his second straight Grand Prix Final.

Rippon came back from a broken foot in January to make the podium in both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. He stayed on his feet Saturday after dislocating his shoulder while putting his arm down on the landing of an opening quadruple Lutz.

Rippon joked that if that had happened in practice, he would “stop and call 911.” It actually did happen in practice two months ago.

It felt so nauseous I thought I was going to black out [in practice],” said Rippon, who is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936, according to Olympic historians. “Now that I’ve done it again, it’s just get back in there buddy.

“You know what, I love drama, so I said, you know what, I can make it through this. I wanted to show my character, that I’m really tough, and I’m up for the challenge of anything, including the Olympic Games.”

Chen and Rippon, along with Jason BrownVincent Zhou and Max Aaron, are the leading contenders for the three-man Olympic team that will be named after nationals in January.

The Olympic team will be chosen based not only off nationals results, but also via a committee dissecting performances from the last year.

Chen is assumed to be a lock. His rivals are not domestic but foreign. Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Jin.

Only Uno has scored higher than Chen this season. Only Hanyu and Uno scored higher last season.

All have had bad days this season. Now, Chen joins them.

“This is a totally new experience for me,” Chen said of struggling in competition. “It’s always a good experience for me to have bad moments like this so I know how to prepare better for the next event.”

Earlier Saturday, Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot won the pairs title, vaulting past two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada with a personal-best free skate score.

The Germans won with 223.13, followed by Chinese Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao with 219.20. Duhamel and Radford, first after the short program, dropped to third with 215.68 after Duhamel fell on side-by-side jumps.

All three pairs qualified for the Grand Prix Final, where the clear favorites are Chinese world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

The top U.S. team was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim in fifth. No U.S. pair made a Grand Prix podium this season for the first time since 2011.

The Knierims are the clear favorites for the U.S.’ one Olympic pairs spot going into nationals in January. The only previous time that fewer than two U.S. pairs competed at the Winter Olympics was at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier‘s 20th-place finish at worlds last season dropped the U.S. from its usual two Olympic pairs spots to one.

The Knierims, who missed most of last season due to Alexa’s life-threatening abdominal condition, were the top-scoring U.S. pair this Grand Prix season by 15 points.

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Skate America
Men
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 275.88
2. Adam Rippon (USA) — 266.45
3. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 257.49
7. Ross Miner (USA) — 219.62

Pairs
1. Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 223.13
2. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 219.20
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 215.68
5. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 189.07
7. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.16
8. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay (USA) — 165.00

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

Lin Dan
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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

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