Two years ago, a 17-year-old Nathan Chen had no expectation of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, let alone topping the free skate to finish second at the second-biggest annual international competition.
One year ago, Chen won the Final, the biggest victory by a U.S. singles skater since Evan Lysacek‘s gold at the 2010 Olympics. It propelled him into the PyeongChang Games as the favorite, undefeated for the season. He bombed in a 17th-place short program but recovered, leading the free skate to place fifth overall and winning the world title by the largest margin in history a month later.
Chen’s third Grand Prix Final this week should carry the least intense ramifications. It’s the more relaxed season after the Olympics. Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, is absent a second straight year with an ankle injury after topping the fall Grand Prix rankings.
Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno is the only skater in this week’s six-man field who has ever challenged Chen.
And Chen is taking it relatively easy this fall, balancing Yale freshman classes with training on his own, 3,000 miles from his Southern California-based coach. In his two Grand Prix starts, Chen averaged about half of the eight quadruple jumps he attempted at the Olympics. He still won comfortably.
“He’s going to have to pull out more in the Final,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “You’re going to be up against someone like Shoma Uno, who has the quads, and if he skates clean can challenge him.”
Johnny Weir agreed while noting that both favorites showed some inconsistency while sweeping their Grand Prix starts in October and November. Chen suffered his first fall since the Olympics at Internationaux de France two weeks ago, allowing quad-less Jason Brown to beat him by 9.47 points in the short program.
“A year ago, that would have been unheard of,” Weir said. “With that said, I think Nathan will use this time between Grand Prix France and the Grand Prix Final to really buckle down and train hard and work hard. His quads were effortless in the free skate in France, but he also showed the world he is vulnerable [in the short].”
Uno has something to prove, too, beyond an ability to put together a clean program after four falls in as many Grand Prix Series skates the last two months.
He made the last three Grand Prix Final podiums, the last two world championships podiums, the last two Four Continents Championships podiums and the Olympic podium, but never on the top step. Hanyu has the gold medals he covets.
“Shoma Uno is so hungry to show the world that he is Japan’s leading man,” Weir said, “that he’s going to come with all his firepower.”
Somebody will take home an unexpected medal this week. It could be 28-year-old Czech Michal Březina, in his first Final in six years. Or 31-year-old Russian Sergey Voronov, the oldest singles skater in the event’s history. Or Canadian Keegan Messing or South Korean Cha Jun-Hwan, first-timers who ranked Nos. 18 and 25 in the world last season. But that medal will likely be bronze.
“It’s going to be a battle between Nathan and Shoma,” Lipinski said. “If Nathan puts out his full program with more quads than he has this season, I think it’s his.”
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