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.
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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