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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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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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Noah Lyles wins duel with Christian Coleman in Shanghai

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Noah Lyles won the first of what will hopefully be multiple head-to-heads with Christian Coleman this season, taking a 100m at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai on Saturday.

Both U.S. sprint phenoms clocked 9.86 seconds, with Lyles coming from about fifth place at 50 meters to edge Coleman by .006 with a lean.

“This was a message to myself,” Lyles said, according to the IAAF. “The 100 has never been my dominant thing so I wanted to make sure this year that everybody knew I was a 100 and 200 runner, and not just a 200 runner kind of running the 100.”

It’s a personal best for Lyles. Coleman has run 9.79.

Lyles, undefeated in outdoor 200m races since finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 18, beat Coleman for the first time in three career senior 100m head-to-heads.

While Lyles prefers the 200m, Coleman has said he hopes to qualify for this fall’s world championships in both the 100m and 200m.

If Coleman follows through on that, he and Lyles will face off in the 200m at the USATF Outdoor Championships in July. Saturday marked Coleman’s first individual race since Aug. 31.

“It is always a struggle to get in good form after such a long time away from competition, so I didn’t have any specific expectations for today,” Coleman said. “In general I am fine with 9.86 today.”

Full Shanghai results are here. The Diamond League next visits Stockholm on May 30.

In other events, Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba won his anticipated duel with Rai Benjamin in a matchup between the second- and third-fastest 400m hurdlers in history. Samba, who took up the event full-time two years ago, clocked 47.27 seconds, which would have been the fastest time in a decade if not for Samba and Benjamin’s rapid times last June.

Benjamin, born in the Bronx and raised partly in Antigua and Barbuda, was passed before the last hurdle and crossed in 47.80. Last June, Benjamin won the NCAA title in 47.02, then matching Edwin Moses as second-fastest in history. Samba ran 46.98 later that month.

Kevin Young remains the longest-standing world-record holder in men’s track racing, setting 46.78 in the 1992 Olympic final.

Sydney McLaughlin, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, was an impressive second in the 400m in her Diamond League debut. The 19-year-old pro, whose focus is the 400m hurdles, clung to world 400m silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser in the final straight and crossed in 50.78, just .13 back of Naser.

Naser hasn’t lost to anyone other than Olympic and world champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the last two years. Miller-Uibo was absent from Shanghai.

U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs won her senior international 100m debut in 11.03 seconds, beating a field that included Olympic champ Elaine Thompson. Hobbs did so two weeks after fracturing a wrist playing laser tag. Thompson, who last won a Diamond League race in 2017, was third in 11.14.

Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha won a battle among the three fastest active 5000m runners, bounding from Selemon Barega to win by .55 in 13:04.16. Barega won last year’s Diamond League Final in 12:43.02, the world’s fastest time in 13 years.

MORE: Allyson Felix on the 2 most terrifying days of her life

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