Nathan Chen leads Grand Prix Final despite mistake

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Even without a jumping combination, Nathan Chen leads the Grand Prix Final going into Friday night’s free skate.

Japanese phenom Rika Kihira had no such problem, nailing her triple Axel and posting the highest women’s short program score this season, ahead of Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in Vancouver on Thursday.

Chen topped a flawed men’s field at the second-biggest annual international competition, tallying 92.99 points despite putting his hands down on a quadruple toe loop landing, failing to tack a triple toe loop on the end of it.

“Every mistake that I make in any program is something I both learn from but also something that I dwell on a little bit,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating, adding that he plans at least three quads in the free. “Of course I’m not completely satisfied with this program that I did today, but I’m glad that I got all of my levels. I’ve been struggling with my flip in the short program for the last couple of seasons so I’m glad I was able to do that here.”

The 19-year-old U.S. and world champion takes a 1.33-point lead over Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno into the free, looking to repeat as Grand Prix Final champion. The Final takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix Series and is often a preview of sorts for the March world championships.

Uno, who took silver to Chen at last season’s Final and worlds, put a hand down landing his opening quadruple flip. The 20-year-old 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.

“Today at the practice, both in the morning and the six minutes warm up, I couldn’t jump properly,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union. “I am not ill or injured. I have absolutely no excuse as to why I couldn’t jump. I wish I could say there was a reason. The fact that I could do everything well in practice and couldn’t do in the competition probably means that the mental side is part of the problem and is my weakness,”

Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 92.99
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 91.67
3. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 89.21
4. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 89.07
5. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 82.96
6. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 79.56

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday night with the rhythm dance, pairs’ short and men’s free skates, live on NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN.

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

Aside from Chen and Uno, the Grand Prix Final lacks any other men from the top seven at the PyeongChang Olympics or March’s world championships. Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic champion, is sitting out the event a second straight year with a right ankle injury.

Chen broke out at the Final two years ago, winning the free skate and placing second overall to Hanyu in his senior international debut season. He then won the event last season, at the time the biggest victory of his young career.

Chen and Hanyu haven’t gone head-to-head since the Olympics and likely will not until the world championships in Saitama, Japan, in March.

The women’s short featured an anticipated showdown between 16-year-olds: Zagitova, who has lost just once in two seasons as a senior skater, and Kihira, who has now landed a triple Axel clean and fully rotated three times in six tries in her senior debut season.

Kihira’s 82.51 supplanted Zagitova as the highest short score this season. Zagitova hit all of her jumps with positive grades of execution, too (77.93 points), but Thursday proved the theory that if both skaters go clean, Kihira will win.

“I was extremely surprised when I saw that score of 82.51, because it was not a score that I would have imagined would ever come up,” Kihira said, according to the ISU.

Zagitova, looking to make it five straight Grand Prix Final titles for Russian women, said she felt nervous and a little tense. She also declined to answer a question about how Kihira’s rise has affected her.

“I try not to pay attention to other skaters’ performances,” she said through a translator.

Women’s Short Program
1. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 82.51
2. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 77.93
3. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 70.65
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 70.23
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 68.24
6. Satoko Miyahara (RUS) — 67.52

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: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.