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Before Yale final exams, Nathan Chen faces a different test: Yuzuru Hanyu

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Nathan Chen is not present for this last week of classes before fall semester final exams at Yale, where his studies are geared toward statistics and data science. Instead, he’s lacing up skates in Turin, Italy, for the biggest competition of the figure skating season thus far.

Chen, undefeated in full competition since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, is part of a six-skater field at the Grand Prix Final, often an annual preview of the March world championships.

But, to many, the event is a head-to-head.

It’s the first time Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, and Japanese megastar Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, will share competitive ice since Chen relegated Hanyu to silver outside Tokyo at last season’s worlds.

“He is, obviously, the top skater right now,” Chen said when asked to analyze the competition. “Not that the other skaters aren’t a challenge, but Yuzu’s definitely the biggest challenge of all.”

Since Chen’s disastrous, 17th-place Olympic short program, he outscored Hanyu in their three head-to-head programs — the Olympic free skate and both days at last season’s worlds. Chen was brilliant in all three, while Hanyu had significant jumping errors (and, at worlds, was likely affected by an ankle injury).

“You can’t base one competition on the success of a skater,” Chen said. “You have to look at an entire career. You have to look at all the different things that they’ve been through and all the ups and downs. It’s a lot more to it than I beat him here, so I’m better. That’s not necessarily the case. He had a tough run at worlds, didn’t skate like I think he could. Fortunately, I did, so it worked out for me that day.”

Chen and Hanyu, not in direct competition this fall, each won two Grand Prix Series events between October and November. Chen prevailed at Skate America and Internationaux de France by 40 and 30 points, respectively. Hanyu one-upped him with record 55- and 60-point victories in Japan and Canada.

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
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NBC Sports analyst and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir looked past the margins of victory.

“There isn’t one performance that really sticks out to me that was weak nor was there one that was a home run,” he said. “Nathan Chen does have more of a quad arsenal, but we’ve yet to see all of them this season.

“Nathan Chen, his free skate’s really entertaining, but I think it lacks a little bit of the sophistication of Yuzuru Hanyu, so it’s going to be the [judging] panel that gets up there on the day to decide.”

Each of Hanyu’s total scores were better than Chen’s, though judges can be more or less forgiving from event to event. Chen, watching replays of Hanyu’s skates from New Haven, tracked the standings.

“You just look at the point differences throughout the year, he’s definitely pulling off better scores,” Chen said. “He’s doing really quality programs and difficult content. Knowing who he is and what he’s shown he’s capable of doing, he’s going to put down here.”

Last season, as a Yale freshman, Chen steadily built his technical content, from four quadruple jumps at Skate America to five in France and six at the Grand Prix Final. Chen repeated as Grand Prix Final champion, with Hanyu sitting out a second straight year with an ankle injury.

Chen looks more prepared as a sophomore than he did at this point last year, NBC Sports analyst and 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski said.

Chen said he’s unsure of his jumping list for Thursday’s short program and Saturday’s free skate, but that he’s been training four quads in the free. He typically does two in the short. Both Chen and Hanyu performed six total quads at their most recent Grand Prix Series starts.

This competition may be more pivotal for Hanyu in the big picture. Chen is fueled by missing the medals in PyeongChang. For Hanyu, anything less than another title in Beijing in 2022 will be a downgrade.

“Does he really need a third Olympic [gold] medal? Will he definitely stay in for this next Olympics?” Lipinski said. “I think he’s using this next season, maybe even the Final, to determine where he ends up and matches up against Nathan. I think he’s using this to gauge whether he’ll stay in and really go for that third Olympic [gold] medal.” 

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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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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