Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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
Women | Pairs | TV/Stream Schedule | Entrants

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

Leave a comment

In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!