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After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

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DETROIT – For the first two seasons after Nathan Chen moved up to the senior level of international skating competition, Chen’s life revolved around his commitments to the sport.

Chen’s high school studies were done through correspondence courses, allowing him to have a schedule that prioritized his time practicing at a southern California rink with coach Rafael Arutunian. He became an immediate success internationally, and in the second senior season, he won a world title, a Grand Prix title, finished fifth in the Olympics and dazzled the world with his quadruple jump exploits.

And he also was a runaway winner in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Championships.

At 19, Chen was ready for new academic challenges.

But he still wanted to do more in skating, a sport with time and travel demands that few elite competitors have succeeded in combining with a full course load at college.

For Chen, that meant turning his life inside out.

MORE: Chen commits to Yale

He enrolled in August at Yale, moving 3,000 miles from Arutunian, allowing coach and skater to interact directly about technical skating issues only occasionally via FaceTime. That has frustrated Arutunian, who would prefer to see Chen every day.

And some in the skating world would make a headlong rush to judgment about Chen’s ability to pull this off after he had a badly flawed performance in his first competition of season, at the free skate-only Japan Open in early October.

Since then, Chen has won Skate America, won the Grand Prix France, won the Grand Prix Final and, Saturday, delivered an exceptional short program to take a 13-point lead over Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou going into Sunday’s free skate at the U.S. Championships.

“Overall, everything is playing off exactly as I had hoped it would,” said Chen.

But that makes it sound as if there haven’t been moments when Chen wondered if that would happen, especially because his skating in the “regular season” Grand Prix competitions, while good enough to win, was not at the level it had been.

“I managed my best possible, but I didn’t skate as well as I wanted to,” Chen said.

Discouraging?

“Of course,” Chen said. “There were times when I was really struggling with them both, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the two.”

He began to have serious doubts before Skate America, which involved a coast-to-coast-and-back trip just before his first Yale midterms. He knew that a flop at Skate America would likely keep him from qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

“I felt there was a lot of pressure there,” he said. “I just took that for the good I could get out of it. I try to focus on using that to develop myself as a skater and a person.”

He was mixing quad Lutzes and courses in calculus, chemistry, Spanish and English. He had to schedule his own ice time, both at Yale’s on-campus Ingalls Rink, where he skates by himself for 60-to-90 minutes from Monday through Friday, and another rink nearby. He had to keep professors apprised of when he would be absent for competitions, which has been the case this week.

“Professors have been okay with it, and they have been accommodating with quizzes and assignments,” Chen said.

Chen said his first semester grades included “some A’s and Bs.” In the second semester, which began 12 days ago, he is taking two courses in quantitative reasoning, math and statistics, and two more courses “TBD” – to be determined.

He would apologize for using “TBD” to answer several questions, including how long he would stay at Yale before likely taking a break to focus on preparations for the 2022 Olympics. At this point, he intends to continue for at least one more year.

“I’m really loving being in the college atmosphere, being able to have something to do outside of the rink, being able to focus on things that are, in my opinion, equally as important as the time that I spend on the ice,” he said.

“Whereas in California, it’s everything just structured around skating, so if you have a bad day, that kind of carries on throughout the rest of the day. But here [Yale], you have the opportunity, if you have a bad day on the ice, you can have a good day outside of the rink. I think that mood change carries over for the next day.”

One of the concessions Chen made to his demanding schedule was initially to minimize, in terms relative only to himself, the number of quads he would do in competition. The man who had been credited with a historic six quads in the 2018 Olympic and world championship free skates, landing five cleanly each time, is satisfied with trying four in Sunday’s free skate.

(A change in the scoring system this season also made it less worthwhile to risk as many quads, on which failures now are penalized more severely.)

Chen did two quads, as usual, in Saturday’s short program to a version of the jazz classic, “Caravan.” His quad flip and quad toe, triple toe combination both came off magnificently, the latter earning eight maximum (+5) Grades of Execution and one +4. Once the jumps were out of the way, he began playing to the crowd.

The judges, clearly carried away by his enthusiasm and the crowd’s appreciation, went over the top with their marks, giving him 16 perfect component scores (10.0). Such largesse is common at national championships around the world, with judges feeling gigantic scores will eventually sway the minds of those who evaluate the skaters at ensuing world championships and Olympics.

Or maybe they were just giving Chen extra credit for making the grade so far in both the rink and at one of the world’s leading universities.

MORE: Jason Brown planning quad in Sunday’s free skate

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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