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Nathan Chen is the man at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Common sense says Nathan Chen could skip this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships and still be named to the Olympic team.

In the last year, Chen became the youngest U.S. champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one free skate, beat the Olympic favorite at the Olympic venue and was the only man to go undefeated in the fall Grand Prix series.

Whew.

Chen goes into nationals in San Jose, Calif., — where the Olympic team will be decided — as the biggest favorite among the four disciplines.

“There is additional pressure, but it’s reassuring again, and I’ve said this before, I’m happy with the way that things have gone,” Chen said last week. “I’m happy that I’m in this position. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time.”

Chen first predicted on national TV at the 2010 U.S. Championships — where he won the novice division at age 10 — that he eyed the 2018 Olympics.

In January 2014, still too young for the Winter Games, he won the junior division at nationals at TD Garden and stuck around to watch the women’s free skate from the second deck.

“I was trying to think about myself in their shoes,” said Chen, who was profiled by The New York Times that week. “Even at that point, it was pretty nerve-racking.”

Chen performs in the short program Thursday and the free skate Saturday. He will almost surely hear his name called in an Olympic team announcement Sunday morning.

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The intrigue? Which other two men will join him in PyeongChang.

It’s not as simple as the top three finishers from nationals.

A committee chooses the Olympic team based on results from events in the past year. This is why Chen is already considered a lock.

Past U.S. champions Adam RipponMax Aaron and Jason Brown are the next highest-ranked U.S. men this season.

The 17-year-old Vincent Zhou took second to Chen at last year’s nationals, then won the world junior title, but struggled this fall.

A closer look at the five primary contenders for three Olympic spots:

Nathan Chen
2017 U.S. champion
Undefeated in 2017-18 season
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

Chen’s real measure is against the top skaters from Europe and Asia, but for now let’s focus on domestic dominance. His best total score this season is 27.34 points higher than the next U.S. man. His worst total score this season is still higher than any other American’s personal best.

Chen plans two quads in his short program and five in his free skate, a total that only one other skater could possibly attempt to match (the struggling Zhou). He certainly doesn’t need that many to repeat as U.S. champion.

There is a little bit of concern. Chen fell in his free skate at his last two events. At Skate America in November, Chen dealt with replacing a skate blade between his short and free, plus other “very private” issues, his coach reportedly said.

Chen won the Grand Prix Final in early December and then missed “a little bit” of training while feeling “a little bit under the weather.”

Adam Rippon
2016 U.S. champion
Two-time Grand Prix Final qualifier
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd

“Besides Nathan Chen, I have the best criteria,” Rippon said last week. The 28-year-old claimed that because he was the only American other than Chen to qualify outright for the Grand Prix Final, where he also finished second to Chen among Americans (and fifth overall of six skaters).

Rippon missed three other key events on the committee’s criteria — last season’s nationals, Olympic test event and world championships — because of a broken foot. Doesn’t matter, he says.

“My mentality going into San Jose is that this is just going to be my coronation,” Rippon said. “The only argument is if other competitors’ mothers are on the selection committee.”

Rippon is a sentimental favorite. He was fifth at the 2010 Nationals (as two-time reigning world junior champion) and eighth in 2014 (as the most consistent U.S. man in the fall season). He considered quitting after missing in Sochi.

“I was fat then,” he said.

Two years later, Rippon won his first national title. Now, he’s poised to become the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936.

Jason Brown
2015 U.S. champion
Ninth at Sochi Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

Brown was the third U.S. man at the Grand Prix Final with Chen and Rippon, finishing last of six skaters at the event. He’s also the only man in this week’s field with Olympic experience. He made the podium at his last three U.S. Championships and in every one of his five Grand Prix seasons.

“I’ve really proven myself,” Brown said. “You look at the criteria, I really do fill a lot of those bubbles.”

What Brown does not have is a consistent quadruple jump. He’s planning a quad toe loop, but has never landed a clean, fully rotated quad in competition. The other Olympic team contenders can all land a quad (though Rippon hasn’t done so clean since November 2016).

Brown makes up for that with strong component (artistic) marks. Which brings to mind his show-stopping “Riverdance” free skate from the 2014 U.S. Championships. This year, Brown received buzz for his short program music from “Hamilton.”

Vincent Zhou
2017 U.S. silver medalist
2017 World junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Zhou was very arguably the No. 2 U.S. man coming into the season. Now, he’s an underdog to make the three-man Olympic team.

The 17-year-old fell seven times in his two Grand Prix events in November. He called his skating “dismal” and later said he was dealing with a shin injury that since cleared up. Zhou also dislocated a shoulder in practice two weeks ago.

Zhou is not relenting on ambition despite those setbacks. He plans five quads in his free skate Saturday, putting his fate in his own skates.

“I know that I’m able to do all the quads that everyone else can do,” he said. “I would say my potential technical content would be on par with [Chen], but as for the artistry, presentation side, I have a long way to go.”

Max Aaron
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd

Aaron was the reigning U.S. champion going into the Sochi Olympic season. He placed third at the 2014 Nationals but was left off the two-man Olympic team.

He’s more off the radar this year — after plummeting to ninth at last season’s nationals — but joined the Olympic team conversation with a personal-best free skate at a Grand Prix in China in November. In his last three free skates, Aaron has twice landed three quads.

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MORE: North Korea misses Olympic figure skating deadline, but door still open

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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