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Ashley Cain, Timothy LeDuc ready to take on Worlds pressure

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Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had a plan for the 2018-19 season: skate well through the fall, become national champions, get named as the only U.S. pair team at the 2019 World Championships, and then win back more pair spots for the U.S. by finishing in the top 10.

So far, they’ve checked off those boxes, with one major hurdle in December. During a competition in Croatia, Cain fell on her head during a lift and had to spend the time leading up to the U.S. Championships recovering from a concussion.

Despite all that, they won their first national title together and will compete at the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

Cain and LeDuc opened up to NBCSports.com/figure-skating in Detroit after nationals about their preparations, the pressure they don’t feel, their coaching team, and how their fans rallied around them during their recovery.

Here we are a day after winning the national title. Has it sunk in?

Cain: At this point I think our brains are a little fried.

LeDuc: I can’t help but feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

Cain: Me too.

LeDuc: I’ve been having all these flashbacks to different points along my journey that I just remember what someone did to help me through something, how they helped me overcome something. This does not just belong to me. it belongs to so many people.

Cain: I found myself yesterday thanking everyone. It was our team around us, yes, and it was each other. It was the U.S. Figure Skating staff, but also it was the fans. They stuck with us through all of it. They were defending us at times when people were being critical. Through this whole week through every practice and through the performances. They were cheering so loud. They were on that journey with us as well. I think that we just feel an overwhelming gratefulness. We just want to keep thanking everybody because that truly is what created that performance out there.

Have you had time to do those thank yous yet?

Cain: A few here and there. Obviously, our coaches, we’ve just been “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” You could see in the Kiss and Cry, they felt every emotion with us because they saw us every day. No matter what was gonna happen in that long program, they were gonna stick by us and build us back up. To have it happen like that was almost a storybook ending to what could’ve happened. It’s crazy to think of what could’ve happened. It’s crazy because it could’ve gone either way.

LeDuc: I’ve felt defeated and down so many times so to be on the other side of that is like… I’m not sure what.

Cain: I’ve also been able to watch these moments happen over and over with other people. I’ve wanted it so bad and to finally have it I’m like, ‘Oh this is what it feels like!’ I still feel like the same person. Nothing changed, you know? I’m still the athlete I was yesterday, but at the same time our goals happened. Everything that we wanted.

LeDuc: We have a few more.

And what are they?

LeDuc: Get the spots at worlds.

Cain: This [a national title] was one of the biggest goals of my skating career.

LeDuc: Same

Cain: And we accomplished it. It’s almost like when people ask, you went to the Olympics, you accomplished all your goals, why are you still skating? Because there’s always more. Yes, you accomplished that goal and it’s a big deal but you always want more. That’s like heading into Worlds, we want to get the spots back for the U.S. teams. We want there to be more teams at Worlds.

[Note: To earn two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships, Cain and LeDuc need to finish 10th or better at Worlds. To earn three spots, they need to win gold or silver.]

You mentioned fan support. It seemed like there was a lot of support, shock, and outrage all at once after Croatia. Was that surprising to see, or did you know they’d always have your back?

Cain: It wasn’t surprising to see.

LeDuc: I think everyone just felt badly for you, and wanted you to be better and happy to see you here. I don’t think anyone would’ve betrayed you for any reason. I understand why people dragged me through the mud a little bit.

Cain: That wasn’t right.

LeDuc: I understand the controversy surrounding maybe the officials side of things.

Cain: I would say to anybody that spoke negatively about the whole ordeal is that I finished. I got up and I finished the program. At that point, I know that my health comes first. But I kept going. You never know how things are gonna work out. Luckily, it worked out in a positive way for us. We finished the program in Croatia strong, nothing happened. I was able to get the right treatment back home.

It was definitely tough… for me, I knew I had the injury and I was gonna get through it, and it was gonna be okay. I was more concerned about Tim, because just some of the comments that were being thrown around. It’s really tough because at the same time, he wants to be there for me and all that. I needed to be there for him in that moment because that was so tough for him to go through as well. I think some people didn’t realize how hard it was for him to have to deal with. That was our first fall, too. For him having to come to terms with that—that was our first lift fall. Ever. And it was in competition, it happened like that.

LeDuc: And it went viral.

Cain: It kept getting spread. Yes, people wanted to weigh in and give their opinions. At the same time, it was tough to go through that. We actually shut down social media for a bit while we were going through all of it.

Concussion is such a buzzword. Do you think that was part of why it got bigger and bigger?

Cain: Yes. It just kept spreading. The video kept getting shared everywhere. That’s okay, now it’s a… a pivotal moment in our careers.

LeDuc: It is. Thankfully, through this – not defining, but in a full circle story – concerning concussions, we followed every plan that the U.S. Figure Skating team gave to us and that’s why we were able to be here strong. We stuck together every plan, every doctor visit.

Cain: All the exercises. The rest.

LeDuc: The treatment, just following the plan and sticking to it. We’re really grateful to have a really good group of people to help us.

One of the things I noticed in the way you guys talk about your coaches is that it’s ‘coaches’ and not ‘mom and dad.’ Is that a mental thing?

Cain: It is. I feel like it’s a business as well. They are our coaches when they’re in the rink and when we’re at things like this, yes, they’re also my parents and they’re excited to feel all the feelings as my parents and see me go through this journey. But at the same time, they look at it as a business as well.

We have a really good relationship and I think it’s worked because we keep it that way. We keep a lot of other emotions out of it.

Did that come from any trial and error or did you set it out to be that way?

Cain: I think we set out for it to be like that at the start when I was a little kid. We always set it up to be like that. We didn’t want to get to my teenage years and start butting heads or anything like that. That never happened. It’s been a really good relationship.

And in your own partnership, it seems like you always speak very highly and thoughtfully of each other.

LeDuc: This is only our third season together but we’ve really… I think that’s why we’ve come together and progressed so quickly is because we have that synergy right from the start. You can’t really force that. It just worked. It was like chemistry really aligned. When you put mutual respect at the center of your partnership, it allows you to deal with things that come toward you. We’ve had a lot of obstacles –

Cain: Oh my god, so many!

LeDuc: – and challenges come at us. We’ve learned how to come together through those so we can overcome them better. That’s really made us strong. I think that’s how we were able to deal with this last six weeks, overcoming the injuries. Because we came together to deal with it and to build each other up. Otherwise separately, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

Hard to do as half and half instead of a whole team, it sounds like.

Cain: We think of each other as equal units as well, equal energies. That’s what we try to bring to our programs and to every performance. I think yesterday [during the free skate at the U.S. Championships], that’s what carried us through that performance. That we counted on each other to bring the equal amount of energy. I remember thinking at the beginning of our program, ‘Our energies are going to come together at this program.’ That’s how we like to think about ourselves.

LeDuc: I knew whatever energy I would give, she would give back. It’s like a positive feedback.

That’s pretty zen.

LeDuc: It was pretty zen yesterday.

Cain: It was really zen!

LeDuc: we were so dialed in and focused.

I have also heard you use the phrase “pillars of strength” to describe your free skate. Tell me more about that concept.

LeDuc: Equality is really important to us. Not necessarily conforming to traditional gender roles and also not the traditional romantic storyline that a lot of pairs and dance teams have. It’s not just because I’m gay. It’s not just because she’s engaged to somebody else. You can still have a great storyline in your partnership that isn’t about being in love.

MORE: Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to peak at Worlds and return to podium

As a reminder, you can watch the 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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Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Rafael Arutunian showed me a photo on his phone of Nathan Chen sleeping on the floor in a dressing room at Great Park Ice Arena when he was supposed to be practicing earlier this month.

Arutunian said he could have taken the same picture on eight days in the 2 1/2 weeks they spent together at his Irvine, Calif., training base during Chen’s semester break from Yale.

Arutunian would see the flu-ridden and feverish Chen curled up asleep, turn off the light, leave the room and wait until Chen woke up before trying to have him do any training.

In the past, Arutunian said, Chen could train through sickness. This time it was futile.

“He couldn’t move,” Arutunian said.

It wasn’t until about 10 days ago, after Chen returned to college on the East Coast, that he was able to do anything resembling training.

At that point, the coach knew he had to be more hands-on than usual, or as much as he could be from 3,000 miles away.

“This time, I was managing everything, calling every day to give him exactly what he needed to do to get ready for the U.S. Championships,” Arutunian said.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

What Chen did on the ice Saturday and Sunday left Arutunian shaking his head in admiration.

He landed six clean quads in six attempts, two in the short program Saturday, four in the free skate Sunday. The short program was of the surpassing excellence that forces writers to exhaust the superlatives in our language for accurate portrayals of his skating.

The free skate did not require consulting a dictionary for new ways to say extraordinary. That was not unexpected, given how diminished fitness figured to take a toll over the length of a free skate, four minutes, compared to the two minutes, 50 seconds in the short.

Yet Chen’s overall skating still drew superlatives from Arutunian, not a coach given to gushing.

“I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” Arutunian said.

This time, his performance was one for historians more than lexicographers, making it one for the ages from a different perspective.

Chen, 20, became the first U.S. man to win four straight U.S. titles since Olympic champion Brian Boitano in 1988. Others who have done that since World War II include Olympic champions Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins, Hayes Jenkins and Dick Button, the last a winner of seven straight.

Chen was fifth at his only Olympics so far, in 2018.  He has won 10 straight events since, including two world titles, two Grand Prix Final titles and the third and fourth U.S. titles.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to not necessarily being one of the legends but to sort of follow their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things, well beyond what I have accomplished. It’s amazing to have that inspiration in front of you, to see how far I can take myself.”

For the fourth straight year, Chen was far ahead of his contemporaries, even if his winning margin of 37.29 points was less than any of the previous three: 58.21, 40.72, 55.44.

That smaller gap owed less to Chen’s flaws in the free skate than to Jason Brown’s having done what his coach, Tracy Wilson, thought was the best skating of Brown’s career, especially for its interpretive maturity.

Chen finished with 330.17 points to 292.88 for Brown and 278.08 for Tomoki Hiwatashi, who had a breakthough performance. World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, who has had only a few weeks of good training after taking a leave from Brown University and moving to Toronto, was fourth at 275.23.

“A couple jump landings were a little shaky,” Chen said. “I wasn’t as controlled and calm as I was in the short program.”

Chen, Brown and Zhou were named to the U.S. team for the March world championships in Montreal. Better results over the past year, notably the world bronze, gave Zhou the third spot over Hiwatashi.

Brown, 25, once again failed to land a quadruple jump, with his quad toe attempt ending in a downgrade and two-footed landing. But he did everything else so brilliantly in a mesmerizingly beautiful performance to music from “Schindler’s List” that his individual grade of execution marks were higher than Chen’s. This was a Brown at a level he had not approached since his 2014 Olympic season.

“I think that was just a glimpse of what’s to come,” Brown said. “One hundred percent, it’s probably the best skating I have done. I think I still have a long way to go as far as the technical aspect as well as the skating skills, but as far as being strong and confident, I really feel things coming together.”

Chen, on the other hand, felt as unprepared as he ever had been for a nationals because of the illness. So he was “absolutely pleased” with his performance to music from the Elton John biopic, “Rocketman.”

“I was able to make good use of the week I had relatively healthy to sort of get myself back in check before this competition,” Chen said.  “I’ve had a lot of experience over the past few years competing in different sorts of situations, and that helped me here in how to still keep myself in a positive, confident mindset.”

Chen’s concession to his physical condition was no quad Lutz. His execution of three of the four quads he did, two toes, a salchow and a flip, was exceptional – especially the opening flip in combination and the final toe. The judges also rewarded him with 15 perfect component scores, six for composition and five for interpretation. 

As much as he impressed the judges, Chen impressed his coach more.

“Amazing,” Arutunian said. “Who else could do this?”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

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.

Nathan Chen wins fourth straight U.S. figure skating title in dominant fashion

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Nathan Chen has leaned on Brian Boitano during times of crisis and injuries. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships the last two days, Chen showcased not only his jumps — six quads between two programs — but some of the mental strength gleaned from the 1988 Olympic champion.

Chen, who said he competed on one week of full training after a flu bout, was his usual standout self, becoming the first man to win four straight national titles since Boitano in 1988.

He distanced runner-up Jason Brown by 37.29 points, totaling 330.17. Chen won all of his national titles by at least 37 points. No other skater, pair or dance couple has won by more than 33 points since the Code of Points was instituted in 2006.

Chen landed a pair of quad toe loops, a quad flip and a quad Salchow in his Elton John-themed free skate.

“I was, again, pretty worried about my stamina coming into this competition, but the audience really helped me get through it,” the Yale sophomore told Andrea Joyce on NBC.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

Boitano and Scott Hamilton, the other most recent man to win four straight, sat together inside the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to, not necessarily becoming one of these legends, but sort of follow in their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things well beyond what I’ve already accomplished. It’s amazing to be able to have that sort of inspiration in front of you and have something to look forward to.”

Besides Chen, five of the six men to earn four straight U.S. titles since World War II went on to earn Olympic gold, which Chen will aim for in 2022. He’s undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics with a disastrous 17th-place short program followed by a leading free skate. He was arguably the favorite for gold.

Chen now heads to March’s world championships for another matchup with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Chen routed Hanyu twice in 2019, by 22.45 points at worlds and 43.87 at December’s Grand Prix Final.

“If I start focusing too much on the results, and I start trying to focus on going to this competition because I want to continue this quote-unquote streak, it will probably be the end of it,” Chen said. After his Grand Prix Final romp, Chen called Hanyu a “skating god” and said the Japanese megastar was still capable of outperforming him.

Brown, skating Sunday to music from “Schindler’s List,” earned his best nationals finish since winning the title in Greensboro five years ago.

He did so without a clean quad, having his one attempt in the free skate downgraded. Brown has never landed a quad in competition. Still, he beat Chen in artistic scores in the short program, coming back from a preseason concussion in a car accident.

“It’s probably the best skating that I’ve done,” said Brown, a 2014 Olympian who changed coaches after missing the PyeongChang Olympics, moving to Brian Orser‘s group in Toronto.

Tomoki Hiwatashi, the world junior champion, jumped from fifth after the short program onto the podium in third. He landed a pair of quads in a clean free skate, making his case to be named to the three-man world championships team.

But that spot was instead given by a U.S. Figure Skating committee to fourth-place finisher Vincent Zhou.

Zhou, the world bronze medalist, finished fourth with one quad in his free skate. Zhou had minor jump landing errors, competing after not training properly for the entire autumn while a freshman at Brown. He moved to Toronto in late December, changed coaches and resumed training a month before nationals.

Andrew Torgashev, the surprise third-place skater from the short program, fell twice on quad attempts and dropped to fifth.

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MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

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.