Transcendent greatness in sports is both absolute and relative.
Absolute, because anyone who sees an exceptional performance can recognize it as exceptional judged against nothing but its own merits.
Relative, because we seek to define greatness by comparison, to determine levels of it (greater? greatest?) when judged by other exceptional performances we have seen or know of, no matter how hard it is to make such comparisons across long periods of time, with the wildly different athletic parameters of different eras.
No matter which standard we use, absolute or relative, what Nathan Chen did in winning the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan was transcendent greatness.
No one other than Chen in the 123-year history of the event has done two unblemished, artistically compelling skates with the technical demands of the jump elements in his short program and free skate.
And no one else has done it while on spring break from his freshman year at Yale, one of the most academically demanding universities in the world. Or with a video chat coaching arrangement, separated by 3,000 miles from Rafael Arutunian, his skating mentor for eight years.
“I can’t put it into perspective because I do not understand how he can go to school, train all those quads and then perform so well – AND do it like it was nothing,” Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time world champion, said in a text message Saturday after watching Chen win his second straight world title. “He looked so calm and made winning Worlds look ‘easy.’”
Chen won the short and free easily and the title in a rout, by 22.45 points. He beat two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by nearly 10 points in the free skate, no matter that Hanyu gave a title-worthy performance with just one mistake.
At the press conference following the free skate, a Japanese reporter framed a question by noting Hanyu had said even two perfect programs might not have been good enough for him to win. That underscores the level of excellence the 19-year-old Chen achieved at this Worlds.
Hyperbole? Not at all. It is impossible to overstate how good Chen was.
“Incredible,” Olympic and two-time world champion Brian Boitano of the U.S. said via telephone. “And the way he did it – the composure, pacing, strength, focus. It has all fallen into place for him in a year.”
One was left to wonder if that was how Chen skated in his dreams of the ultimate performances?
“Of course,” he told me in an interview a couple hours after it was over. “That is exactly what I have trained for, everything I have wanted from skating. It’s amazing to have it actually come true.”
Chen became the first U.S. skater to win consecutive men’s singles world titles since Scott Hamilton took his last of four straight in 1984. Said Hamilton, via text: “Nathan is consistently performing at a level I never thought possible.”
As is the case when Chen is in command, his jumping was boggling. He did a quadruple Lutz and quad toeloop in combination with a triple toeloop in the short. A quad Lutz, quad flip, solo quad toe and quad toe with triple toe in the free. The quad Lutz in the free – rock solid, mile high, long run-out and seemingly effortless – got the highest Grade of Execution (4.76) (GOE) ever recorded for a jump.
It wasn’t the jumps that separated this Chen from the Chen of past seasons. It was the rest of his skating, the part evaluated in the five program component scores (PCS), the part that loosely falls under the rubrics of artistry and presentation.
At the Olympics, when Chen also won the free skate but finished fifth after a short program disaster, his PCS in the free was 9.32 below that of Hanyu, whose movements and edge work some find the most beautiful of the sport’s great champions. Saturday, Chen’s free skate PCS was just 1.04 behind Hanyu’s.
Shae-Lynn Bourne, the Canadian ice dance world champion who choreographed Chen’s short programs the past two seasons, said she has concentrated on getting him to share his personality with the audience and the judges by expressing himself and the program’s story in every movement.
“If you start from that place, people will feel something,” Bourne said. “They won’t just see it as going from element to element.
“It’s not easy to really share something of your personality. Nathan was willing to try from the first time we worked together. Each time I see him, it comes out even more.
“It’s like it is all clicking, and because it’s all clicking, he is starting to cover all the (PCS) bases, to show the whole package. It’s not just the steps but how he does the steps, the presence in each step. It’s not just doing the jumps but how he goes in and how he lands and goes out of the jumps. It’s the ride of the blade so it doesn’t feel like he is setting up for jumps: they just arrive. It’s affecting everything about how people see him and perceive him on the ice.”
Chen left Japan – and global TV audiences – with the perception of an extraordinary athlete and an eye-catching artist on ice. That left the question of whether his was the greatest overall performance in Worlds history.
“Because he put out SO much energy in both programs bringing the nuances of the music to life and simply entertaining the audiences on top of the mountain of technical difficulty, I think an argument can be made [for it being the greatest],” Browning replied. “Both programs would work well in a show environment, without all the technical content.”
No wonder Arutunian told me by telephone Saturday that this was the first time in 44 years of coaching he felt complete happiness over one of his skaters’ performances and the work he had accomplished to help the skater do it. That doesn’t mean Arutunian felt Chen has done all he can.
“He should skate better than that,” Arutunian said. “He has no choice. The sport does not stay in one spot. I just hope Yale will give me more time to help him do that.”
Chen likely will take some semesters off to prepare for the 2022 Olympics, although he has no definite plans yet. From the time Chen matriculated at Yale in August through now, he and Arutunian have worked together face-to-face only during Christmas break, while at the U.S. Championships and while at Worlds.
There was a lot of rush-to-judgment naysaying about how such an arrangement would work when Chen bombed his first competition, the free-skate-only Japan Open in early October. It was a complete mess: he fell on three quad attempts and doubled a fourth.
“I trained for that like I would train around a summer event, and I wasn’t in the best shape to run a whole program,” Chen recalled Saturday. “That was a wake-up call that you have to train more appropriately if you want to maintain what you are doing.”
Few highly successful figure skaters in the past 50 years have tried to handle a full college academic load and compete.
Chen admitted to just “throwing myself in there and thinking, ‘Hopefully everything turns out the way I want.’ Fortunately, that was the case. Every competition, I was able to improve. I was even able to improve on what I was doing in school as well.
“Honestly, I had my doubts about whether I could pull it off. It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s thinking that it is too ambitious. Of course, there were also those who supported it, and having the support of my family and Raf played a huge role in me deciding this is what I wanted to do.”
He made steady progress after the Japan Open, enough to win two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final. But Chen was not fooled by the victories. He knew his skating level was below what it had been on the Grand Prix the past two seasons and below his own expectations.
His Japan Open doubling of an opening quad loop, a jump he had tried in only one previous competition, had led Chen to wildly attempt to compensate with way more quads than he could handle at that point. That, too, was a wakeup call.
“I played it smart after that in terms of the number of jumps I did and how I approached the beginning of the Grand Prix season,” Chen said. “Competition after competition, I built confidence.”
Suddenly, at the U.S. Championships in late January, Chen was better than ever, tossing off quads with absolute security, showing the feeling for movement that Bourne had him focus on. As his Worlds teammate Jason Brown said at nationals: “It’s unbelievable. He is pushing the sport in ways that growing up I could only dream of.”
As Chen prepared for Worlds, Hanyu was trying to recover from an ankle injury that had kept him out of competition since November. It was a replay of a year ago, when a similar injury had kept the Japanese superstar out of competition for three months leading to the Olympics, when Hanyu became the first man to win consecutive Olympic titles since Dick Button in 1948-52. A month later, he then wisely chose full recovery over trying to defend his 2017 world title.
Hanyu, 24, has not won every championship gold since his first Olympic triumph but he has been the sport’s gold standard over the ensuing five years. Arutunian unabashedly asked for Hanyu’s autograph at a Grand Prix event in Japan several seasons ago (“I still have the magazine with it,” the coach said.) Chen said Hanyu has been his skating idol.
So, faced with Hanyu’s stature, fierce competitive will and desire to win for the home fans, Chen figured it likely would take something extra to earn another world title. He worked on a free skate pattern with a fifth quad but abandoned the idea because he couldn’t get the program as consistent as he wanted. He returned to the four-quad program from nationals.
“As soon as I made the decision, I stuck with it, and I think that boosted my confidence knowing that one, I had done it well before and two, I had trained a harder program and now I would be doing an easier one,” Chen said. “At the same time, I knew the (top) guys would all be doing as many quads, and it would come down to who skated the cleanest.”
In the short program last Thursday, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan fell on his opening quad and stumbled to sixth in the short program. And Hanyu faltered, doubling a planned quad Salchow and receiving zero points for that element.
Chen took advantage of his rivals’ errors with a clean program that earned a PCS score just .29 below Hanyu’s, with a big technical score difference. That gave him a 12.53-point lead over Hanyu and 16 over Uno going into the free skate.
The free skate draw put Hanyu right ahead of Chen. He and Arutunian prepared for what that meant: as Chen took the ice, the crowd would probably be going wild, and time would be needed to clear the surface littered with plush Winnie the Pooh toys of all sizes, the fans’ salute to Hanyu’s talisman. Chen would later joke about being happy only one side of the rink had been covered with Poohs, so he still had room to loosen up.
Hanyu’s wonky finish on his second of four quads in the free skate, also a Salchow, drew both an under-rotation call and a negative GOE, costing him some five points. Arutunian said he still thought, “We are not allowed a mistake.”
Whether that was the case became a moot point because Chen did not make one. His GOEs on the four jumping passes with quads were huge: the 4.76, a 2.04 and two of 3.39. His feeling for the dreamy, wistful music, “Land of All” by Woodkid, was striking. His blades simply flowed across the ice.
Arutunian thought this title was more meaningful than Chen’s victory a year ago because Hanyu was there, because of the consequences of the skating order, because Chen skated better than he had not only at the 2018 Worlds but also in his dazzling performances at the 2019 nationals.
Even as he noted it was a great feeling to win against “a full roster this time,” Chen sees the meaning of the second title in a more nuanced way than simply for having taken the top spot from Hanyu.
“We’re in completely different (places) in skating,” Chen said. “He has accomplished so, so much. It’s not like I’m trying to take over what he has started. I want to respect everything he has done in the sport and for the sport.
“I’m in the generation below him. He’s always been a person for me to look up to, for me to try to close the gap to be close to him. It’s a little foreign for me to be in this position. At the same time, I have put in the work to be in this position.”
Theirs is now a legitimate competitive rivalry, one rooted in mutual respect, one that can only enhance the sport leading to the 2022 Olympics. Whether both still hold the pre-eminent positions in men’s skating three years from now is impossible to predict, even if there are few apparent challengers to Chen and Hanyu on the scene. If both remain healthy, they likely will be battling each other for the gold in every major event over the upcoming three seasons.
Whatever happens in the future will not change the history, absolute or relative, of what Nathan Chen did last week. It was and forever will be a transcendent example of sporting greatness.
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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