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World Championships men’s preview: Can Nathan Chen defend his world title?

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Nathan Chen last competed at January’s U.S. Championships, where he won his third consecutive national title.

He put together two of the best performances of his career at nationals, though he has yet to do a clean short program internationally this season. Whether Chen is able to defend his 2018 world title in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24 will likely depend on hitting his short program.

As the old skating adage says, you can’t win a competition based on a short program, but you can lose it.

Unlike some of the other competitors he’ll face in the field, Chen, a Yale University freshman spending his spring break at the world championships, is rested. He hasn’t competed since January, opting to sit out February’s Four Continents Championships. That said, he remains undefeated this season.

His biggest challengers:

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan

Credentials: Two-time Olympic gold medalist (2014, 2018); two-time world champion (2014, 2017)

Hanyu won both of his Grand Prix assignments in the fall, despite taking a hard practice fall Nov. 17 at the Grand Prix Russia. He withdrew from the subsequent Grand Prix Final and also missed the Japanese national championships.

“I was doing everything I could to make the national championships, so I’m very disappointed that I cannot participate,” Hanyu said in a statement at the time, according to Japanese media. “I will make an effort to return to competition as soon as the pain and limitations are gone.”

At a press conference before the world championships, Hanyu said, “I can’t say my injury has healed completely, but I feel I’ve been able to bring myself to a level that is acceptable to me…I’ve done 120% of what I could do in Toronto,” according to a translation posted online.

The latest news from Japan is that Hanyu says he is “100 percent.”

When NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke to his coach, Brian Orser, in January, he said his pupil’s focus was on Worlds.

Worth noting: The intangible factor of competing on home ice, especially in a country that loves skating as much as Japan does, will play a factor Hanyu. He won his first world title in Saitama in 2014.

Shoma Uno, Japan

Credentials: Olympic silver medalist (2018), two-time world silver medalist (2017, 2018), 2019 Four Continents Champion

The Four Continents title Uno won in Anaheim, Calif. in February might’ve been his ultimate breakthrough. Fighting through a sprained ankle, Uno earned the highest free skate score recorded this season to win his first ISU Championship title. He is the Olympic silver medalist, two-time Worlds silver medalist, and he has been on the podium at the Grand Prix Final four times — though never in the top spot. Uno figures to be in the podium mix.

Worth noting: Like Hanyu, Uno will also be competing on home ice.

The U.S. men:

U.S. silver and bronze medalists Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown will join Chen in Saitama.

Zhou won a bronze at Four Continents, his most recent competition. Since then, he told reporters on a conference call, he’s been working toward more clean landings on his jumps. He has been penalized for under-rotations throughout this season.

Brown wasn’t at his best at Four Continents, where he notched a fifth place finish. This season, he moved away from his longtime coach to join Orser’s camp, where he trains alongside Hanyu and South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan. Brown says he is steadily improving and taking it day-by-day, keeping his eye more on the 2022 Olympic Games than this season’s results. He’s beloved in Japan and even started learning Japanese a few years ago.

Honorable mention: When Jin Boyang is on, he’s a threat, just like Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada. Both could become vulnerable if they start to make mistakes, though. Cha grabbed a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final, and Czech skater Michal Brezina and Canada’s Keegan Messing were also in the Final. Italy’s Matteo Rizzo most recently claimed the European bronze medal, stamping him as one to watch as well.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships

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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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