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.”

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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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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