Nathan Chen, Yale student, swaps books for boots at Skate America

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Nathan Chen is nearly two months into a new, unique training situation — 3,000 miles from his coach while taking freshman classes at Yale. How has it been?

“Very difficult,” for Rafael Arutunian, his 61-year-old Southern California-based coach said. “I knew it would be difficult.”

Chen headlines this weekend’s Skate America, his first full competition since winning last season’s world title by the largest margin in history.

That came after the quadruple jump king placed 17th in the Olympic short program, then topped the free skate in PyeongChang (trying six quadruple jumps, landing five clean) for fifth place overall.

The U.S. champions in every discipline are in action at Skate America in Everett, Wash., to kick off the Grand Prix season.

Chen is the only Olympic or world medalist in the men’s field, making him a clear favorite even though Arutunian has only seen his star pupil in person for one weekend since he matriculated.

MORE: Skate America TV, stream schedule

“But I Skype, and he sends me some videos [of his training],” Arutunian said by phone Tuesday (the busy Chen has not done media interviews while focusing at Yale). “But I mean he decided to study, and I think we’ll figure out if something will not work well for him. Maybe he will change something, but for now we have what we have.

“You don’t feel like you can discuss longer than 10, five minutes, it’s difficult. We’ll see how he can handle that.”

Chen can ease into the season at Skate America and his second Grand Prix in France next month, both during breaks from classes.

He has almost another two months before he would face Olympic gold and silver medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, potentially at December’s Grand Prix Final in a preview of March’s world championships in Saitama, Japan.

Chen actually returned to competition two weeks ago at the Japan Open, a free skate-only event treated by many more as an exhibition. Arutunian was there as Chen fell three times in one program for the first time in his senior career.

“Japan Open, it’s kind of show, but when it comes to competition, it’s different,” Arutunian said, adding that Chen told him he was dealing with a cold for two weeks going into Japan, but that he’s not sick anymore.

NBC Sports analysts Tara Lipinski (1998 Olympic champion) and Johnny Weir (two-time Olympian) could not recall any recent skaters near Chen’s level who attempted the elite university-skating double with long-distance coaching.

“I did go to a college for about a week and said, I couldn’t do it all,” Weir said. “I just knew my limits.”

As longtime Olympic reporter Phil Hersh noted, Paul Wylie studied at Harvard from 1986-91 and competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics (with a silver in Albertville), taking two semesters off and spending three summers in school. Chen consulted with Wylie before moving to New Haven.

Weir’s college try was at the beginning of his senior international career, before he won three national titles and made it to the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

“To be on the opposite coast from his usual training home, in school and carrying a full course load, it seems like a lot to me,” Weir said. “However, Nathan Chen showed last season and in seasons prior that his technical abilities keep him at such a high level that there is room for him to give a little wiggle and to have a season where he’s just adjusting to having school and skating together and learn his system.”

Lipinski was not too concerned about the falls in Japan, noting Chen’s bounce back in PyeongChang.

“When you’re at a level and you’re a skater like Nathan, Nathan knows technically what he needs to do,” she said. “He’s not learning a variety of new jumps. He has that under his belt. It’s more so having the comfort of your coach, having someone there helping you when it comes to a new program, helping you set out your plan for the next four years, building your confidence. It may affect him in that way, not having that extra support he’s used to, that he’s had for so long, that has worked so well for him.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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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