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.

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”