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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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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