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Yale student and world champion Nathan Chen finds time for Stars on Ice

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NEW YORK (AP) — Somehow, in the midst of his freshman season at Yale, Nathan Chen has found time to escape the classroom and the study hall and the tests.

All he’s done since becoming an Ivy Leaguer is win the Grand Prix Final, a third straight U.S. figure skating championship, and repeat as world champion. Yale might have a strong hockey team, but Chen’s hat trick can’t be matched by any of the Bulldogs.

Chen chuckles when asked about achieving so much while also carrying a hefty workload in school.

“It is challenging,” he says, “but I knew it would be.”

And now that the competitive season is over — Chen helped the United States to a first-place finish in a world team event last weekend — he can have some downtime, right?

Well, he could. Instead, he’s fitting in appearances with the Stars on Ice tour, which launches Thursday night in Fort Myers, Florida. He will, however, skip some stops on the 13-city tour to take class finals. He is, after all, a full-time student.

“It will be a challenge because of exams and other things, but most of the shows are East Coast- based and I can travel to school and back to the show,” he says. “Yeah, I am taking a gap for finals, but ultimately (the grind) is not too much of a concern.

“It’s really nice that we have so many top skaters in Stars on Ice, so I am not part of the cast this year based on my schedules. It would definitely impact the cast if they had to take me out of some (routines). It’s a better idea to do my numbers separately. Besides, with all they have accomplished, they are a great cast.”

That includes 2014 Olympic champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, and world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue.

Still, the fact Chen, who turns 20 next month, is participating on the tour after a full season of competition and the Yale workload is somewhat astounding.

But he’s worked out a regimen for practices in New Haven, chats “all the time” with coach Rafael Arutunian, and really hasn’t missed a beat — or a quad — since his fiasco of a short program at the 2018 Olympics that likely cost him a medal.

Chen has been a winner at everything he has entered since the PyeongChang Games, where his outsized performance in the free skate nearly overshadowed the medalists as he rallied to finish fifth.

“Anytime there is no Olympics, it’s a completely different situation,” he says. “For the Olympics, there is a buildup to the Games for four years. And it’s even more evident when you are thinking about that specific Olympics in that year. Now is the time to be improving, there’s less fine-tuning, more bold improvement and we’ve been able to achieve a lot of that this year. Ultimately, I am really happy with the season.”

The 2018-19 was highlighted by a pressure-packed showing by Chen at worlds in Japan last month. Leading after the short program, he was scheduled on the ice just after national hero Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion. Hanyu was sensational; Chen cracked that the fans’ celebration after Hanyu’s routine — they throw Winnie The Pooh dolls onto the ice — featured “more Pooh Bears than I knew existed. It was incredible to see so many Pooh Bears on the ice.”

Chen didn’t crack in his skating, though, and easily skated off with gold.

“It was awesome,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to see that number of people really enjoy the sport the athletes love so much. The reception was insane. Stepping on the ice, it is a little breathtaking to see all those people in a triple-decker rink, filling so many seats and making so much noise.

“I was able to feel that energy from the audience and that they were expecting or wanting a good performance out of me.”

He delivered, becoming the first American since 1984 to repeat as men’s world champ. The last was Scott Hamilton, who coincidentally founded Stars on Ice.

Reminded of that connection, Chen noted that “Scott won four in a row. I have a ways to go.”

MORE: By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 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.

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2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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