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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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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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MORE: USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal

Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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