Nathan Chen on his way to defending World Championship title, Jason Brown in silver medal position

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Nathan Chen set up his World Championship title defense well, sitting in first place after the short program on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

“That was fun,” his coach Rafael Arutunian told Chen in a hug as he walked off the ice.

Chen opened with a triple Axel, hung onto the landing of his quadruple Lutz, and ended with a quad toe, triple toe combination. He scored a season’s best 107.40 points to lead the field by a whopping 10.59 points.

“I’m very happy with my short program today,” Chen said in a press conference. “There’s always things that I can do better. Everything that I did, I did as best as I could. I hope to continue that into the long program.”

Chen is looking to become the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. Only six American men have won multiple World Championships. Chen is currently juggling school and skating, and his spending his spring break from Yale University at worlds.

In second place after the short program, Jason Brown also scored a season’s best 96.81. He opened with a triple flip, then a triple Axel, and a triple Lutz, triple toe combination to be in medal contention.

“I’m super pleased with today’s performance,” Brown said. “I’ve been working really hard this season building my consistency with my coaches.”

In a surprise finish, neither of Japan’s home favorites are in gold medal position after the short program — though they are within striking distance.

In his first competition since his November injury, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu scored 94.87 points and is in third place. Hanyu turned his planned quad Salchow into a double but recovered to cleanly execute his triple Axel. His quad toe, triple toe combination was also called clean.

Saitama, Japan is the site of his first World Championship title from 2014 and this year he is vying for his third world title. Ahead of the start of this season, Brown moved to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, where Hanyu also trains. Brown added in the press conference that Hanyu has pushed him daily to be a better skater, while Hanyu returned the compliment and said Brown has inspired him, too.

“I’m basically very disappointed with my short program,” Hanyu said through an interpreter during the press conference. “I made a very big mistake. I aim to reflect back and figure out what I can do better for my free skate. I will look at everything I can do to improve upon my performance.”

Hanyu also said that he hopes to continue to compete against Chen — this is their first meeting since PyeongChang.

Hanyu and countryman Shoma Uno are skating on home ice in Japan, showing off the country’s depth of skating.

Uno, meanwhile, skated to “Stairway to Heaven” and fell on his opening quad flip attempt. He pulled off a subsequent quad toe, double toe combination (though it was a planned quad-triple) and triple Axel through the remainder of the program.

Fresh off his first major victory at the Four Continents championships in February, Uno scored 91.40 points and is currently in sixth place.

Full results are here.

Last months’ bronze medalist at Four Continents, Vincent Zhou, skated two quads in the short program and scored 94.17 points. The third U.S. man in the field had a clean quad Lutz, triple toe combination but his quad Salchow was called under-rotated, something he’s struggled with all season. He is in fourth place ahead of the men’s free skate on Saturday.

Two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang earned 84.26 points in the short program and is in ninth. He finished in 19th at last year’s championships following a fourth place in PyeongChang.

Canada’s Keegan Messing, who qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, fell on his opening quad toe attempt. He didn’t add a combination to his triple Axel or triple Lutz but earned 82.38 and is in 13th place.

The rhythm dance gets underway on Thursday at 11 p.m. ET.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title | Alina Zagitova leads after ladies’ short program

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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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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