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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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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