Nathan Chen defends world title, defeating Yuzuru Hanyu at World Championships

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Nathan Chen is now the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. He defeated two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in their first head-to-head competition since the PyeongChang Olympics on Saturday in Saitama, Japan.

Performing to “Land of All” by Woodkid, Chen landed four quadruple jumps and scored 216.02 points in the free skate, a new highest score in the world this season. His free skate, 323.02 points, was also the highest score in the world this season. The Yale University freshman extended his 10.59-point lead from the short program to 22.45 points to claim his second consecutive World gold medal. He heads back to class next week, after spending his spring break at this competition.

“It’s breathtaking to be in this arena. Thank you so much for being loud and carrying me through my program,” Chen told the Saitama crowd.

“I’m glad I was able to put out two strong skates both here and last year and I hope to be able to compete against Yuzuru further in the future,” Chen continued later in the press conference. “Every time Yuzu skates, he does something amazing and incredible and it’s just a huge honor to be able to skate with him, skate after him, especially knowing that how he sets the bar. It’s great to be able to follow that.”

Skating after Hanyu wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for Chen, he told reporters in a press conference following Thursday’s short program.

“It’s not my first time skating after him,” he said. “The raining of the Pooh bears is actually a pretty amazing sight to see. Knowing that fact, it’s something that I can prepare myself for — it’s not even something I have to prepare myself for. It’s an amazing thing. It’s amazing to see the fans love us, care for us and do all this to hypothetically make us happy. That’s such a great feeling.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu told reporters he was 100 percent, recovering from a lingering ankle injury, and he proved it. Skating at home, at the site of his first of two world titles, he was third after the short program but rallied to score 206.10 points in the free skate and 300.97 points overall. His Origin (“Art on Ice”) by Edvin Marton free skate earned him the silver medal. Afterward, his fans covered the ice with stuffed Pooh bears, as has become tradition for whenever Hanyu takes the ice.

“I was thinking about Plushenko when skating this program, because I am somehow lending it from him, and I feel that I have done what I could in this free program,” Hanyu said, referencing four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia. “But I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me. I really want to win.

“When I was going through my rehabilitation, I watched the American Nationals where Nathan Chen was performing,” Hanyu continued. “I am a really competitive person, and I want to compete with a strong opponent. I respect Nathan in this sense. Now I will have enough time until the next season, and I will try not to get injured and do my best to get stronger.”

Vincent Zhou performed to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, skating first in the final flight of skaters. He was called for two under-rotations — on his quad toe and the triple flip in his triple Lutz, Euler, triple flip combination — to score a season’s best free skate (186.99) and a season’s best total score (281.16). Zhou had his best-ever World Championships finish, claiming the bronze medal.

“I had a good Nationals and Four Continents and used the momentum to build and build, and finally, I was able to put out two great performances in the same competition, here at Worlds,” Zhou said. “I really couldn’t be happier to do what I did here.”

The last time the U.S. put two men on a World Championship podium was 1996, when Todd Eldredge won gold and Rudy Galindo claimed the bronze in Edmonton, Canada.

The third U.S. man in the field, Jason Brown, fell from second after the short program to ninth overall with a 157.34 point free skate and a total overall score of 254.15 points. He skated to a Simon & Garfunkel medley.

For Brown, skating last and closing out the competition was a little less familiar from a logistics standpoint, he said in the post-short program press conference. Once he found out the draw, he texted coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson to figure out how it would work — as he shares those coaches with Hanyu.

“I feel great, it is not the performance that I had wanted, but I am so proud of the fight that I put out there, the growth that I made this year,” Brown said. “Also I am so proud at my teammates. It feels amazing to perform here, I love the Japanese crowd, I love the feeling of performing out on that ice, especially in Japan.”

Full results are here.

Shoma Uno, January’s Four Continents gold medalist, likely buckled under the immense pressure of a home World Championships. He stepped out of both of his first two quad jumps in his program, both of which were called under-rotated. He managed 178.92 points in his Moonlight Sonata free skate for a total overall score of 270.32 points. His medal streak (silver 2017-18) snapped in Saitama and he finished in fourth place.

“I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks for high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature,” Uno said. “Overall I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become mentally much stronger. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this World in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair titleAlina Zagitova wins first world title | Papadakis, Cizeron win fourth world title; Hubbell, Donohue land on podium

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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Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

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MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.