Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas on Friday, an elegant Nathan Chen performed a romantic short program to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” earning 102.71 points and a 6.14-point lead at Skate America.

When the two-time world champion takes the ice for his free skate on Saturday, he’ll pop and lock to music from the Elton John biopic Rocketman — for the last 30 seconds or so of the program, he’ll be a hip hop dancer on skates.

After choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil presented Chen with the idea, it took him a while, or at least a couple of minutes, to get used to it.

“Originally, she just said Rocketman and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Chen said. “Then she threw in the hip hop. I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She didn’t tell me until I got there and she played the music.”

“I figured it would be fine,” he added. “My issue was telling [coach] Raf [Arutunian]. I didn’t tell him until I got back to California, but when I did tell him he was actually totally on board with it.”

Whatever concerns the coach may have had vanished when Chen showed him the steps, created with Dubreuil’s collaborator Samuel Chouinard.

“First of all, it looks like it’s professionally done and he executes it professionally,” Arutunian said. “I was watching ice dance last year and many of couples (were) doing hip hop dancing, and I think he would be one of the best at it. If you do something, you should do well, and he is doing it so professionally, you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.”

This isn’t exactly Chen’s first try at hip hop. He touched on it last season in his “Land of All” free skate, also created with Dubreuil and Chouinard.

“I was actually pretty cool with it because I worked with Sam last year. We did a tiny bit of hip hop to incorporate (into the program), it wasn’t truly hip hop,” Chen said. “I knew that’s (Sam’s) specialty, that’s what he’s great at, and I figured it would be fine.”

Chouinard, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, has created hip hop programs for other skaters, including Canada’s two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Many ice dancers incorporated hip hop into their short dances for the 2016-2017 season. But as Chen notes, trying it in men’s singles competition is a different story.

“I did consider that,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen much of this. I know (U.S. skater) Philip Warren has done something like it this year and other kids have, and of course dancers did it. It wasn’t something that is never done, but rarely do you see it with the top six guys (in the world).”

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Chen has to be encouraged by the reaction of spectators at his practices here, who screamed and clapped when the skater busted his moves.

“It’s a judged sport and the way the audience reacts to the program has some influence on how the judges interpret your performance,” he said. “I think we don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fan base, the audience. It’s nice to incorporate everything. It’s cool to see all the guys competing have completely different styles, so each program new, unique and fresh.”

Now a sophomore at Yale University, Chen’s balancing act between studies as a Statistics and Data Science major and elite figure skater competitor, is getting a bit trickier.

“Homework is time consuming, each homework assignment takes six to 12 hours to finish and I have a couple per week, so that’s a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly exam times that are really challenging, right now is a little bit easier time for me at school. Obviously it’s going to pick up. It’s tough, but as much as I’m in the situation, I just have to manage as best I can.”

Fortunately, Skate America takes place during an academic break. Japan Open earlier this month was another story; the trip caused him to miss a midterm exam, which he later made up.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

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. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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