AP

U.S. swim coach leads calls for backup plan for Olympic open-water venue

Leave a comment

TOKYO (AP) — The IOC moved the Tokyo Olympic marathons and race walks out of the Japanese capital to avoid the stifling heat and humidity.

Now some swimmers and an 11,000-member coaching body are asking that something similar should be done with the open-water swimming venue in Tokyo Bay.

Known as the “Odaiba Marine Park,” the water temperatures there were near danger levels in test events this summer for open-water swimming and triathlon. E. coli levels also plague the urban venue, and athletes have complained about the odors coming from the small inlet.

“Here’s the reality,” Catherine Kase, who coaches open water for the United States Olympic team, said in an email to the Associated Press. “If a marathoner faints or passes out, they may get a few bumps and bruises. If the same thing happens to an open-water swimmer, the result could be lethal.”

Tokyo’s heat again is the main problem.

Water temperatures in the venue this summer were very warm, climbing one day to 86.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s barely under the limit of 87.8 set by swimming’s world governing body FINA. The temperatures were consistently in the 84-86 range.

FINA rules specify that the race will be shortened or canceled if temperatures go over the limit.

FINA rules read: “All open-water swims’ alternative plans should be made in case environmental factors make the swim unsafe forcing it to be canceled or curtailed.”

Kase added. “We would like to push for a viable back-up plan. The straightforward answer is that we are not comfortable with the Odaiba venue.”

Kase noted that U.S. swimmers are advised against participating if temperatures exceed 85. She also said U.S. swimmers can still choose to swim “and will likely feel pressure to do so” at big events like the Olympics.

“Our athletes shouldn’t have to worry about health concerns as they’re preparing to compete in the race of their lives,” Kase wrote.

The venue also has water quality issues including E. coli bacteria and problems with water transparency. Tokyo organizers say bacteria levels fall within “agreed limits,” on most days, though rainfall exacerbates the problem.

John Leonard, the executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, was even more emphatic about a move and placed much of the blame on FINA.

“We support a change in venue,” he said in an email to AP. “The ASCA position is always to err on the side of safety for the athletes. FINA talks about safety and then does the opposite and puts athletes in harm’s way.”

FINA and local organizers say there is no “B Plan.”

The IOC promised last month there would be no more venue changes. It made this pledge after angering Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who strongly opposed moving the marathons out of Tokyo to the norther city of Sapporo.

The IOC said the decision was made, primarily to consider athletes who must run in the heat. But Koike’s allies characterized it as “an IOC-first decision, not an athletes-first decision.”

Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA, spoke cautiously in an interview with AP.

Asked about the water temperatures at the venue, Marculescu replied: “I don’t want to comment,” he said, and suggested that elaborating could cause “problems.”

“This is what it is,” he added. “We check the quality of the water, we check the temperature all the time.”

Marculescu and local organizers say race times could to be moved up to very early in the morning, hoping to beat the heat. That was also an early strategy for the marathons and race walks before they were moved.

Athletes in outdoor water events at the Rio Olympics faced severe pollution in venues for rowing, sailing, canoeing, open-water swimming, and triathlon. But heat was not an issue.

“We are following up with a company there (in Japan),” Marculescu said, “like we have done in Rio — the same story — with an official government company. We are looking at water temperatures, the quality of the water and all these kinds of things.”

Water temperature was linked to the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen in 2010 at a distance swim in the United Arab Emirates. The autopsy concluded his death was from drowning and heat exhaustion and included the possibility of a heart abnormality.

It was the first competitive death in FINA’s history, and much of the blame was aimed at the swim body.

The United States and Canada both withdrew their swimmers from an open-water race in October in Doha, Qatar. The race took place in the same body of water where Crippen died. Temperatures were again reported right at the FINA limit, and some reports said they were slightly above the limit.

In an email, the Canadian Olympic Committee did not address the water issue specifically but said, “we remain confident that the organizing committee and the IOC will take every precaution to ensure that the games are held safely and successfully.”

Fernando Possenti, the open-water coach for the Brazilian Olympic team, said athletes need to deal with the environment and not waste time complaining about it.

“Program yourself, adapt your athletes to this kind of condition,” Possenti said in an email to AP. “This particular sport contemplates direct contact with nature and its variables. Heat and humidity are two of them.”

The Odaiba venue was picked partly because it offers picturesque 180-degree views of the skyscrapers that hug Tokyo Bay and the bridges that cross it.

In Tokyo, to counter E. coli levels, organizers have installed underwater screens that work as a filter. E. coli was within agreed limits on all but one day in test events this summer.

But the screens also appeared to drive up water temperatures, and organizers plan to install triple screens for the Olympics.

In a statement, Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said, “we will consider operating methods that can help suppress water temperatures, such as allowing the underwater screens to float, and opening them when the weather is good.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Dressel recalls summer tears in Golden Goggles speech

Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Rafael Arutunian showed me a photo on his phone of Nathan Chen sleeping on the floor in a dressing room at Great Park Ice Arena when he was supposed to be practicing earlier this month.

Arutunian said he could have taken the same picture on eight days in the 2 1/2 weeks they spent together at his Irvine, Calif., training base during Chen’s semester break from Yale.

Arutunian would see the flu-ridden and feverish Chen curled up asleep, turn off the light, leave the room and wait until Chen woke up before trying to have him do any training.

In the past, Arutunian said, Chen could train through sickness. This time it was futile.

“He couldn’t move,” Arutunian said.

It wasn’t until about 10 days ago, after Chen returned to college on the East Coast, that he was able to do anything resembling training.

At that point, the coach knew he had to be more hands-on than usual, or as much as he could be from 3,000 miles away.

“This time, I was managing everything, calling every day to give him exactly what he needed to do to get ready for the U.S. Championships,” Arutunian said.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

What Chen did on the ice Saturday and Sunday left Arutunian shaking his head in admiration.

He landed six clean quads in six attempts, two in the short program Saturday, four in the free skate Sunday. The short program was of the surpassing excellence that forces writers to exhaust the superlatives in our language for accurate portrayals of his skating.

The free skate did not require consulting a dictionary for new ways to say extraordinary. That was not unexpected, given how diminished fitness figured to take a toll over the length of a free skate, four minutes, compared to the two minutes, 50 seconds in the short.

Yet Chen’s overall skating still drew superlatives from Arutunian, not a coach given to gushing.

“I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” Arutunian said.

This time, his performance was one for historians more than lexicographers, making it one for the ages from a different perspective.

Chen, 20, became the first U.S. man to win four straight U.S. titles since Olympic champion Brian Boitano in 1988. Others who have done that since World War II include Olympic champions Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins, Hayes Jenkins and Dick Button, the last a winner of seven straight.

Chen was fifth at his only Olympics so far, in 2018.  He has won 10 straight events since, including two world titles, two Grand Prix Final titles and the third and fourth U.S. titles.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to not necessarily being one of the legends but to sort of follow their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things, well beyond what I have accomplished. It’s amazing to have that inspiration in front of you, to see how far I can take myself.”

For the fourth straight year, Chen was far ahead of his contemporaries, even if his winning margin of 37.29 points was less than any of the previous three: 58.21, 40.72, 55.44.

That smaller gap owed less to Chen’s flaws in the free skate than to Jason Brown’s having done what his coach, Tracy Wilson, thought was the best skating of Brown’s career, especially for its interpretive maturity.

Chen finished with 330.17 points to 292.88 for Brown and 278.08 for Tomoki Hiwatashi, who had a breakthough performance. World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, who has had only a few weeks of good training after taking a leave from Brown University and moving to Toronto, was fourth at 275.23.

“A couple jump landings were a little shaky,” Chen said. “I wasn’t as controlled and calm as I was in the short program.”

Chen, Brown and Zhou were named to the U.S. team for the March world championships in Montreal. Better results over the past year, notably the world bronze, gave Zhou the third spot over Hiwatashi.

Brown, 25, once again failed to land a quadruple jump, with his quad toe attempt ending in a downgrade and two-footed landing. But he did everything else so brilliantly in a mesmerizingly beautiful performance to music from “Schindler’s List” that his individual grade of execution marks were higher than Chen’s. This was a Brown at a level he had not approached since his 2014 Olympic season.

“I think that was just a glimpse of what’s to come,” Brown said. “One hundred percent, it’s probably the best skating I have done. I think I still have a long way to go as far as the technical aspect as well as the skating skills, but as far as being strong and confident, I really feel things coming together.”

Chen, on the other hand, felt as unprepared as he ever had been for a nationals because of the illness. So he was “absolutely pleased” with his performance to music from the Elton John biopic, “Rocketman.”

“I was able to make good use of the week I had relatively healthy to sort of get myself back in check before this competition,” Chen said.  “I’ve had a lot of experience over the past few years competing in different sorts of situations, and that helped me here in how to still keep myself in a positive, confident mindset.”

Chen’s concession to his physical condition was no quad Lutz. His execution of three of the four quads he did, two toes, a salchow and a flip, was exceptional – especially the opening flip in combination and the final toe. The judges also rewarded him with 15 perfect component scores, six for composition and five for interpretation. 

As much as he impressed the judges, Chen impressed his coach more.

“Amazing,” Arutunian said. “Who else could do this?”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

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.

Nathan Chen wins fourth straight U.S. figure skating title in dominant fashion

Leave a comment

Nathan Chen has leaned on Brian Boitano during times of crisis and injuries. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships the last two days, Chen showcased not only his jumps — six quads between two programs — but some of the mental strength gleaned from the 1988 Olympic champion.

Chen, who said he competed on one week of full training after a flu bout, was his usual standout self, becoming the first man to win four straight national titles since Boitano in 1988.

He distanced runner-up Jason Brown by 37.29 points, totaling 330.17. Chen won all of his national titles by at least 37 points. No other skater, pair or dance couple has won by more than 33 points since the Code of Points was instituted in 2006.

Chen landed a pair of quad toe loops, a quad flip and a quad Salchow in his Elton John-themed free skate.

“I was, again, pretty worried about my stamina coming into this competition, but the audience really helped me get through it,” the Yale sophomore told Andrea Joyce on NBC.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

Boitano and Scott Hamilton, the other most recent man to win four straight, sat together inside the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to, not necessarily becoming one of these legends, but sort of follow in their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things well beyond what I’ve already accomplished. It’s amazing to be able to have that sort of inspiration in front of you and have something to look forward to.”

Besides Chen, five of the six men to earn four straight U.S. titles since World War II went on to earn Olympic gold, which Chen will aim for in 2022. He’s undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics with a disastrous 17th-place short program followed by a leading free skate. He was arguably the favorite for gold.

Chen now heads to March’s world championships for another matchup with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Chen routed Hanyu twice in 2019, by 22.45 points at worlds and 43.87 at December’s Grand Prix Final.

“If I start focusing too much on the results, and I start trying to focus on going to this competition because I want to continue this quote-unquote streak, it will probably be the end of it,” Chen said. After his Grand Prix Final romp, Chen called Hanyu a “skating god” and said the Japanese megastar was still capable of outperforming him.

Brown, skating Sunday to music from “Schindler’s List,” earned his best nationals finish since winning the title in Greensboro five years ago.

He did so without a clean quad, having his one attempt in the free skate downgraded. Brown has never landed a quad in competition. Still, he beat Chen in artistic scores in the short program, coming back from a preseason concussion in a car accident.

“It’s probably the best skating that I’ve done,” said Brown, a 2014 Olympian who changed coaches after missing the PyeongChang Olympics, moving to Brian Orser‘s group in Toronto.

Tomoki Hiwatashi, the world junior champion, jumped from fifth after the short program onto the podium in third. He landed a pair of quads in a clean free skate, making his case to be named to the three-man world championships team.

But that spot was instead given by a U.S. Figure Skating committee to fourth-place finisher Vincent Zhou.

Zhou, the world bronze medalist, finished fourth with one quad in his free skate. Zhou had minor jump landing errors, competing after not training properly for the entire autumn while a freshman at Brown. He moved to Toronto in late December, changed coaches and resumed training a month before nationals.

Andrew Torgashev, the surprise third-place skater from the short program, fell twice on quad attempts and dropped to fifth.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

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.