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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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10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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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.

China’s first Winter X Games postponed due to coronavirus

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A Winter X Games competition due to be held in Chongli, China, next month has been postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.

“Due to the ongoing coronavirus concerns, the X Games Chongli 2020 event will be postponed until a later date,” organizers announced via Twitter. “The safety of our athletes, staff and spectators is our top priority, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The competition would have been the first Winter X Games held in China. Shanghai has hosted many X Games in the summer, including a event last June.

As with an Alpine skiing World Cup event that was canceled Wednesday, the X Games were due to take place at a 2022 Olympic venue, Chongli’s Secret Garden ski report. The venue hosted a World Cup snowboard event in December.

READ: First Alpine World Cup in China canceled

Several of the most decorated X Games and Olympic athletes, including two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson, were scheduled to compete in China.

The coronavirus outbreak has also affected qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, with boxing and women’s soccer tournaments moved from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Asia-Oceania boxing qualifiers will be held March 3-11 in Amman, Jordan, with coverage on the Olympic Channel. The women’s soccer qualifiers, including traditional power China and a strong Australian team, were originally moved to Nanjing but then moved to Sydney, Australia.

China’s team has arrived in Australia but is under quarantine, putting the start of the qualifiers in doubt.

Aspen hosted the biggest X Games competition of the winter last week. Another X Games is scheduled for March 7-8 in Norway.

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