Nathan Chen three-peats as U.S. national champion

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DETROIT – What Nathan Chen did in Sunday afternoon’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships looked like otherworldly brilliance to everyone who saw it.

“Honestly, it’s incredible,” said Jason Brown, who had a chance to watch Chen because Brown had skated before him.

And yet Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, refused to get carried away after his skater easily became the first man since Johnny Weir in 2006 to win three straight men’s national titles.

“I am not completely satisfied,” Arutunian said Sunday. “There is so much more he can do.

“He didn’t do a quad Salchow. I still want him to try a quad loop. This was a program he has executed before. You always like to improve.”

Chen was not surprised by hearing Arutunian’s comments.

“Raf is always the overachiever,” Chen said. “That’s why I am with him. Of course, there are things I can improve on.”

Results: Men’s final

What Chen did Sunday, he did extraordinarily well. His first of four flawlessly executed – and seemingly effortless – quadruple jumps, a Lutz, was so high it may have hit the radar of air traffic controllers at Detroit Metro Airport.

“That’s normal,” Arutunian said of the height Chen reached on the jump. “He is older and stronger.”

His other quads were a flip and two toe loops, one in combination with a triple toe. Chen said he made a last-minute decision to do the second toe loop instead of the Salchow.

“I just felt that maybe now wasn’t the right time for it,” Chen said.

Twenty-five of the 36 Grade of Execution marks received on his four jumping passes with quads were the maximum of +5. No man in the world has done a clean free skate with that many quads this year.

When he wasn’t jumping or setting up jumps, Chen, 19, skated with a feeling for the music, “Land of All” by Woodkid, a dynamism of expression and body position and a fluidity of movement that have added a new dimension to his skating this season.

“He has taken skating to an entirely new world,” NBC commentator Weir said during the free skate telecast.

Chen’s component scores were stunning, even given the generous nature of marking at nationals. Chen got an overall perfect 10 for both performance and interpretation of the music, with just one of the nine individual marks in each category under 10.  He also received some 10s for skating skills, transitions and composition.

“He has matured,” Arutunian said.

Chen tried one fewer quad than the history-making five he had landed cleanly in the previous two nationals. But for the third year in a row, Chen was in another universe from all the other men’s skaters in the United States.

“It’s unbelievable,’’ Brown said. “He is pushing the sport in ways that growing up, I could only dream of.”

MORE: Jason Brown’s costume drama leads to cross-continent quest

Chen won this time by a 58.21-point margin over Vincent Zhou, with Brown another 11 points back in third. Chen won last year by 40.72 and two years ago by 55.44.

The difference this year – beyond that Grades of Execution now stretch from +/- 5 instead of +/- 3 – is Chen has done it while a freshman at Yale, carrying a load of sports and school that many, including Arutunian, worried might overwhelm him.

“I am so happy that he could handle both,” Arutunian said.

The coach nevertheless said again he hopes Chen can take more time away from Yale to train with him in California, to which Chen chuckled and replied, “of course.” Arutunian thought the two weeks they spent together over the holidays were a significant part of his success at this nationals, when Chen also had a sparkling performance in the short program.

Chen trains on his own in Connecticut, both on the Yale rink and another one nearby. He and Arutunian occasionally work out technical issues via FaceTime.

“He relied on experience and quality of technique to do well this time,” Arutunian said.

It hasn’t been that way all season for Chen. While winning two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final, his performances have been consistently flawed, far from what he likely will need to repeat as world champion in March.

Chen has said Yale professors have been very accommodating of his skating schedule, which forces him to miss classes for competitions.

“There are pros and cons (of being on his own as a skater, 3,000 miles from Arutunian),” Chen said. “No matter where I’m training, no matter who I’m training with, there will be good things and bad things about it. I’m so thankful Yale has given me the ice time for me to continue pursuing my dreams outside of school.

“Some competitions have been really good; some have been not so good. Ultimately, I feel I’m improving competition to competition. This competition gives me a lot of confidence going to the future.”

Chen noted that nationals came at a good time, with second-semester classes having started only 13 days ago and the course work yet to ramp up.  Some of his previous competitions this season were in the middle of the semester, when the academic load was heavier.

“I definitely learned a lot more about handling my schedule last semester,” Chen said.  “It’s reassuring to know I can handle the two.”

Chen knows there are times when something has to give. He is skipping February’s Four Continents Championships, even though they are taking place in Anaheim, Calif., just down the road from Arutunian’s training base in Irvine.

If Chen has to miss class time, it likely would be more valuable for him to do it for training time with his coach closer to worlds.

That is what Arutunian wants. He knows Chen can be even better than he was Sunday.

That would be something to see.

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

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships, Four Continents and world 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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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
AP
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

Shawn Johnson
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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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