Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony again at world championships

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Nathan Chen has had little down time at Yale University since the beginning of his first-year classes in late summer.

The reigning figure skating world champion had embarked in August on a journey unlike almost any other in the history of the sport. Not only was he trying to blend both full-time college studies and competitive skating, as other champions had successfully done in the past, he was trying to do it with limited input from a coach who was 3,000 miles away.

His skating practice schedule includes a one-hour round trip to a nearby rink. His courses this semester include calculus, statistics, abnormal psychology and Listening to Music.

But it’s typical of Chen that when he had a break from classes last week, he used it to take on another challenge.

He went into an empty common room at one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges and sat down at a piano that was, to be polite, in need of some TLC.

Chen, 19, later said the exercise wasn’t just for fun and relaxation but rather to see if he remembered how to play the instrument, on which he had achieved a solid level of proficiency nine years ago but played little since.

Judging from the video snippets Chen posted on Instagram, the answer is yes.

In one, he performed part of the free skate music his U.S. teammate and good friend, Mariah Bell, is using this season. In another, he poked fun at his own skills and gave praise to singer-instrumentalists after trying to accompany himself on a Rainbow Kitten Surprise song called “Mr. Redudant.”

His comment overlaying the video: “MAD PROPS TO PEOPLE WHO SING + PLAY PIANO BC BOI IS IT HARD.”

Nathan Chen playing the piano.

Truth be told, what Chen is doing also deserves mad props.

Not only is he undefeated this season going into this week’s world championships in Saitama, Japan, Chen has been able to more than hold his own academically at Yale, saying there were “some As and Bs” on his first-semester transcript.

And, as with the piano, he hasn’t forgotten the important basic skating techniques that have helped him land one landmark quadruple jump after another.

“I’m proud he has still kept the skills he has been worked on all these years,” Rafael Arutunian, his coach, told me in a telephone interview last week. “His jumps are stable and strong.”

Still, Chen knows a shaky effort at worlds will raise doubts about the current path he has chosen.

That helps explain why, despite all the times Chen has expressed pleasure over his first-year experience at Yale, he is committed only to being non-committal about his plans beyond this academic year.

It seems likely he will request an academic leave for all or part of the next Olympic season, 2021-22, but Arutunian hopes Chen can take some time off before then.

Yale regulations allow undergraduates “in good academic standing” to take two terms of leave, which do not have to be consecutive. Yale also allows some students to take a third term of leave if they are doing accelerated classwork (graduation in six or seven semesters of work rather than the usual eight), and Chen mentioned on a media teleconference last week he intends to take some courses this summer.

“He’s a special guy, and I think he needs special treatment (from Yale),” Arutunian said. “I would like to see that happen.”

After Chen’s dazzling performances to win a third straight U.S. title in late January, Arutunian emphasized how important it had been that he and the skater were able to spend nearly three weeks together at the coach’s Southern California training base during Yale’s Christmas break.

They could have had another pre-competition stretch together last week, with Yale on spring break. But the coach thought a week was too short and would have made the sessions too intense. Chen also was suffering from a cold and decided to stay in New Haven before leaving Saturday and going directly to Japan, cutting down his travel.

“I didn’t want to see him right before a competition because he would try too hard to impress me and get tired,” Arutunian said. “We had enough time before nationals that he could work hard the first week and go easier after that.”

Arutunian said he has even limited the number of video chat coaching conversations the two have to avoid taking time Chen could be using for practice or school work. The coach is impressed with how well Chen has handled remaining one of the world’s best skaters and studying at one of the world’s best universities.

“For how he is doing in studies at Yale and in practicing most of the time by himself, he’s doing excellent,” Arutunian said. “He can’t just go home and rest after practice.”

But Arutunian recalled, almost wistfully, the way Chen had looked late last August at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp (an evaluation session), which came after they had spent several weeks of concentrated training time together.

“He was doing so well it was amazing,” Arutunian said. “Everyone was shocked to see how well he was doing all the elements.”

The most encouraging thing about Chen’s skating this season is it has gotten better, with increased technical demands, as the season has gone on.

In his first individual event, October’s Skate America, his short program combination included just two triple jumps. By the next event, it was a quad-triple. Over Chen’s four competitions this season, his short program aggregate technical base value has gone from 39.96 to 41.97 to 43.05 to 47.67.

The progression has been similar in the free skate: three quads in the first two events, four in the next two, and a base value jump from 84.01 at Skate America to 94.39 at nationals.

A year ago, Chen did five free skate quads at nationals, all judged clean, and then a history-making six at the Olympics and worlds. (Nine of his 12 Olympic and worlds quads got positive Grades of Execution; the others all got full rotational credit.) But Chen said he might have been doing fewer quads now even without the extra time demands of college.

This season’s new rules have played into his tactics. Cutting 30 seconds from the men’s free skate, being able to repeat just one type of quad and having more reward for clean elements and more penalty for mistakes all encourages trying fewer quads. In the Grand Prix Final and nationals, Chen did a quad Lutz, a quad flip and two quad toes.

“Based off the way the season has been going and the rule changes, what I’ve been doing definitely is the right move,” Chen said. “Regardless of whether I was in college, I would probably follow a similar track. As of now, I’m happy with everything.”

That does not preclude Chen pulling out a fifth quad in the free skate this week. He tried a quad Salchow at his second Monday practice in Japan.

Chen has lost just one competition the past two seasons – the 2018 Olympics, in which a hot mess of a short program put him in 17th place. That he rallied to finish fifth by winning the free skate easily over eventual gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was both a consolation prize and a needed confidence boost for Chen, who also had bombed the short program in the Olympic team event.

Chen went on to win the 2018 worlds without Hanyu, who was still recovering from the foot injury that nearly undid his hopes to win a second straight Olympic gold. As he seeks a third world title, Hanyu’s health is uncertain again after another foot injury has kept him out of competition since November.

How well Chen skates at worlds will factor “to some degree” in his decision about whether to enroll at Yale for next fall. He has until August to decide.

“It depends on what my goals are in skating,” Chen said. “I can always find time to continue my education. Skating has more of an end date.”

His skating schedule after worlds is to include appearances in nine of the 13 Stars on Ice shows in April and May, and he might return to Japan for the World Team Trophy in mid-April. Both are lucrative gigs.

Chen has no reservations about his answer to the question of how well he has managed his dual obligations, especially given the immediate naysaying from some critics when he struggled competitively early in the season despite winning.

“Has it gone better than you hoped?” Chen was asked.

“Definitely,” he said. “(And) it was just an experience I didn’t want to give up on before I ever tried it.  I’m glad I gave myself the shot to attempt both.

“I’ve really, really enjoyed myself being in college, and I’m happy with the way things have been going there. Skating has been going well too, so I can’t really complain.”

Not when Nathan Chen can play the complicated score to his life well enough that it sounds like harmony in a major key.

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

MORE: How Japan built figure skating powerhouse

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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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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