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

AP
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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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