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No burnout for ‘Rocket Man’ Nathan Chen

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Last season, Nathan Chen made it all look so easy.

An undefeated Grand Prix series, including his second Grand Prix Final victory. His third U.S. title. A second world title, won with personal best scores.

All while navigating his freshman year at Yale, and earning solid grades. He hasn’t lost a full competition since PyeongChang.

As a sophomore, though, the 20-year-old figure skater expects a tougher road. Yale’s fall academic schedule isn’t quite as cooperative as last year. Chen, who opens his season at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5 and Skate America two weeks later, will miss some classes when he travels to Grenoble for Internationaux de France the first week of November.

He also expects to burn a bit more midnight oil than he did as a freshman.

“School will be a little harder, with harder classes,” Chen said while attending U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp at his hometown training rink in Irvine, Calif., in late August. “A lot of my classes last semester were pre-reqs for the major requirements. Now I’m starting to actually hit the major requirements, so that’ll be pretty challenging classes, but it should be all right. I may get tutors to help me.”

Experience taught the Statistics and Data Technology (STEM) major how to best arrange his schedule. Last year, he took Spanish as one of his electives, with the class meeting five times a week. This season, Chen said, he’s focusing on courses that meet once or twice a week.

“The first semester wasn’t ideal, but I’m arranging my schedule so that it is a little bit more manageable to some degree, while at the same time fitting in all the requirements that I need,” he said. “I will leave language for when I come back.”

Chen means after the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where he will challenge for a gold medal after placing fifth in PyeongChang (17th in the short program; first in the free skate). While he has not announced concrete plans, he has talked of the possibility of taking a sabbatical from Yale prior to Beijing.

Chen’s offseason gave him little respite from travel. His schedule included skating shows in Japan last month. There, he performed his new competitive short program, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme.”

Then Chen showed much of his new free skate at a show in Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s set to selections (including “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets”) from the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.”

Marie-France (Dubreuil), the choreographer I’m working with, was really inspired by the movie and wanted to do a piece to it,” Chen said. “If the choreographer is really inspired or feels as though they can do a good job with it, I can let them run free with it.”

Despite his busy summer, Chen thinks he’s had plenty of time training with California-based coach Rafael Arutunian.

“The way that he teaches us is not really on a day-to-day basis,” Chen said. “He kind of just gives us general ideas and we work on his concepts and stuff like that. … We just need to be on the same page.”

This season, Arutunian – who also trains U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, Canadian junior star Stephen Gogolev and many others – may make a few trips to Connecticut to sharpen Chen’s technique, especially his all-important quadruple jumps.

“We were planning on that last season, but (it) never actually ended up happening, so we’ll see what happens this year,” Chen said. “I want Raf to come, but he has a lot of skaters. He has a lot of other people that he’s committed to, so it’s kind of difficult for him to pop out. But, at the end of the day, if he can that would be great.”

MORE: Alysa Liu becomes first U.S. woman to land quad

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.

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Dominik Paris, world champion skier, suffers season-ending injury

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Italian Dominik Paris, the reigning world champion in the super-G, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a training crash Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Paris crashed in super-G training not far from the hallowed World Cup venue, slipping into a curve and damaging his right knee. He also suffered a fibula microfracture, according to the Italian federation.

“My season ends here,” he said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Unfortunately while I was sliding, the inside ski caught too much and the ligament broke. There is not much to add. In the next few days we will evaluate, together with the medical staff, how to proceed.”

Paris won his third Hahnenkamm downhill title last year and was one of the favorites for Saturday’s downhill, the most prestigious annual race in the sport. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage for “Snow Pass” subscribers at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Paris, 30, won a pair of downhills in Bormio in December among five total podiums this season.

In his absence, Swiss Beat Feuz and German Thomas Dressen lead the podium contenders.

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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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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.