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Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

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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.”

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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.”

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.

MORE: Two-time figure skating world champion to retire in January

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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