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Nathan Chen on what’s next after his runaway Grand Prix Final victory

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Over three days last week at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, Nathan Chen passed with honors his first big test of this figure skating season, the usual two-part exam of short and long programs. And he did it with very high marks – his sport’s equivalent of A and A+.

This week in New Haven, Conn., Chen faces what he has found to be the progressively harder tests in the other programs of his two-part life – studying at an elite university and competing with his sport’s elite. They are the four final exams for the first semester of his sophomore year at Yale.

Then Chen returns home to California for what could be the sternest test of all – a month meeting the face-to-face expectations of Rafael Arutunian, his coach.

Arutunian’s pleasure in how brilliantly Chen performed to win a third straight Grand Prix Final gold, especially in a Saturday free skate with exceptional execution of five quadruple jumps, was fading into the past even before the coach left Italy. He wants Chen to be even better with even tougher programs.

“It’s a process, but I think we’re getting there, especially the five quads, which is difficult,” Arutunian said via telephone from Turin. “I’m looking forward to making it even harder.”

The coach said that after Chen had done the best long program of his career, a record-setting masterpiece in which the level of difficulty, the way Chen commanded it and the overall performance quality added up to an utterly remarkable four minutes on the ice.

It seems just as remarkable that Chen reached such a level nearly four months earlier than he had last season, when he won a second straight world title with skating of transcendent greatness.

Both times, Chen’s near perfect performances gave him runaway victories over the flawed skating of his formidable rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.

Chen won the 2019 world title by 22.45 points. He nearly doubled that margin at this Grand Prix Final, winning by 43.87. It was the largest gap between the top two men at the Final in the 16 years the event has used the International Judging System.

Chen’s 335.30 total points at the Grand Prix Final are a record. So are his 224.92 points in the long program, when 64 of his 108 individual Grade of Execution (GOE) marks (max: five) were fives (19) and fours (45), and his program component scores averaged 9.58 (max: 10).

Both the total and long program scores bettered his own marks from the 2019 worlds. His short program score, 110.53, was a personal best that missed Hanyu’s record by just .15.

“I am thrilled things are where they are this early,” Chen said via telephone from Turin a few hours after the event ended. “It won’t be easy to maintain, so we will see how things go.

“As the season progresses, a lot of things can change. When I get back to California, we can plan how to approach the next couple competitions. But I’m very happy this happened.”

The next two competitions are the U.S. Championships Jan. 23-26 in Greensboro, N.C. and the World Championships March 18-21 in Montreal.

The men’s event at nationals begins 12 days after the start of second semester classes at Yale. The men’s event at worlds begins 13 days after the start of the Yale spring break, which should give Chen a chance to spend more time with Arutunian before heading to Montreal. Separated from the coach by 3,000 miles and three time zones, Chen has been getting most of his instruction through occasional video chat.

“It’s going well, but I feel I can improve more with a pair of eyes on me,” Chen said.

Before athlete and coach spent two weeks in each other’s company during the Thanksgiving school break and the subsequent trip to Italy, Arutunian had given Chen a plan to get him ready for their practices together. It included work on consistency with the quad Salchow, which recently had been a balky jump for Chen, giving him the security to do more than four quads in a free skate for the first time since the 2018 worlds.

They made the decision to attempt the fifth quad after watching Hanyu nailing quad Lutzes and attempting quad Axels in practice. In the free, Hanyu would do just the second quad Lutz of his career – and it was a beauty – after opening with an excellent quad loop.

“I was doing the fifth quad in practice with the intention to potentially put it in,” Chen said. “Because of what I saw him (Hanyu) doing, I realized this was the time to try it.”

The rivalry between Chen and Hanyu has become transformational for the sport, leading each to attempt a more demanding jump level.

Can it go further? Arutunian suggested Chen could up the ante by doing a quad Lutz or quad flip in the second half bonus area of the long program or by returning to a quad loop, which he has tried (and landed cleanly) just once, in a Challenger Series event two years ago.

“I guess we will have to see what Yuzu does with the quad Axel and whatever other quads he throws in,” Chen said. “I think we’re both pushing each other to our limits as it is. It’s an exciting time for both of us.”

And their appreciation for each other is striking.

“The more we meet, the more we understand each other’s personality, where we have come from, the work we have put in,” Chen said. “We have that mutual respect.

“The bottom line is he is an incredible skater, and he has done incredible things for the sport. I have to respect that.”

The Grand Prix Final was their eighth competitive meeting. Each has won four, with Chen taking the last two. Beginning with the 2018 Olympic free skate, Chen has won five straight programs over Hanyu.

The difference in the fifth, Saturday’s free skate, was a whopping 30.92 points as Hanyu made mistakes on three straight jumping passes late in the program. Only one got a negative GOE but another was even more costly: single Axel on what was planned as a triple Axel-triple Axel sequence.

“He has everything – so much clean jumps, music sense is good,” Hanyu said of Chen at the press conference following Saturday’s free skate. “He can feel the tempo with music. He has so much experience (from) gymnastics and ballet, and I don’t have it.

“Of course, I can say I got two (Olympic) gold medals, but that’s a past thing.”

His comment about Chen’s music sense and ballet background was particularly timely after a free skate in which the three-time U.S. champion had a higher total component score than Hanyu (by 2.12 points) for the first time in any program.

“That was a surprise, even for me,” Arutunian said.

Hanyu intimated that his attention on doing both the quad Lutz and the quad loop attenuated his attention on performance. Arutunian agreed.

“Maybe doing those jumps made him feel more pressure, and he lost components,” Arutunian said. “Maybe it was because Nathan skated clean programs, he got those components. The judges appreciate clean programs.”

As well they should, because they are rare. In the past six seasons, as men have loaded programs with more and more quads, only three times has the men’s winner of a major event – Grand Prix Final, Olympics, Worlds – done two clean programs: Hanyu at the 2015 Grand Prix Final, Chen at the 2019 worlds and this 2019 Grand Prix Final.

That Chen’s have come during the two seasons since he enrolled at Yale is even more noteworthy. The overall level of his skating on the Grand Prix has been better than it was a year ago, a testament to having learned last season how to better balance and handle school and the sport. His current courses include statistics, math and anthropology.

“The skating part is basically the same as it was last year,” Chen said. “The difference is harder classes. Using experience obtained last season, I’m able to approach practices more efficiently. But harder classes mean I have to spend more time studying, and that adds a little more stress.”

Such stress likely will increase. Chen almost certainly will take a break from school before the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, but the decision on when must factor in Yale’s policies on academic advancement and academic leaves. A Yale student is eligible for two terms of leave, consecutive or non-consecutive.

“I feel I have been able to maintain what I have been working on with Raf quite well by myself,” Chen said. “That [arrangement] is working for the current situation but I feel as we get closer to the Olympic Games, I have to prioritize skating a little bit.”

After all, he wants to ace the biggest test of his sporting life.

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

MORE: Alysa Liu, attempting unprecedented jump list, takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final

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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Lindsey Vonn makes first trip to Kitzbuehel, still feeling some sadness of retirement

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Lindsey Vonn is back on the Alpine skiing World Cup tour this weekend, but not as a racer.

Vonn, who retired last year, is a spectator (and course inspector) at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, Austria, home to the biggest annual men’s race in the sport (full TV, live stream schedule here).

It’s her first time watching competition in person since a career’s worth of injuries forced her to retire last winter, four wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s World Cup record total of 86.

“I feel like skiing is like a bad break-up, so I need to keep some distance and some space,” she said, according to sponsor Red Bull. “And I’m slowly getting back into watching it. It’s hard, because every time I watch it, it reminds me of what I’m missing. I find it easier to watch the men’s races obviously than the women’s, but of course I’m always cheering for my teammates and watching girls coming back from injury who’ve had a hard time.

“I kind of need some space still. But, as time goes on, I’ll be able to be more involved and it will be less painful for me, and I can kind of start to build a new relationship with ski racing.”

Vonn was a special guest at the podium presentation of Friday’s super-G won by Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, who like Vonn came back from major knee injuries to return to an Olympic podium.

Vonn long harbored ambitions of racing against men, but it never came to fruition, at least in part due to the International Ski Federation never signing off. In 2012, she was quoted saying she wanted to race at Kitzbuehel, the most challenging track on the men’s circuit.

“Before I was injured, I really wish I would have at least got a chance to ski down it,” she said this week. “I wouldn’t even mind if I had raced, but it would have been cool for me to one time go down it with a race suit on and see what it’s like. Being here as a spectator, I’m so jealous of the men.”

While Vonn keeps busy in retirement, including wedding planning with fiance P.K. Subban, emotional pain remains from being off the ski circuit.

“It’s not really about letting go as much as just not being able to do what I love anymore,” she said. “That’s like a bad break-up where I just miss it, and wish I could still do it, but physically I wasn’t able to, and it’s a hard reality to accept. No matter how many business deals I make or companies I start, it’s never going to replace the adrenaline and the speed and the thrill of ski racing.

“It’s something I have to learn to live with ,and I just thought it would be a little easier than it was, but when you wake up and your world’s totally different and the reality sinks in, it just makes you sad sometimes.”

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MORE: Alpine skiing season TV schedule

Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Tennell said. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell was battling not only her reserved persona but nervousness over a lingering arm problem.

She had hit her elbow on a wall after a bad spill a few months ago, leading to swelling that went up and down intermittently since then. “For some reason, this week it got really swollen and really painful,” she said.

When she woke up Wednesday, she could not bend her arm. She went to the event medical staff for help. They told her she had an infected hematoma and gave her antibiotics. Her mother, an emergency room nurse for 25 years, added her expertise to the treatment.

That did not calm her nerves, though. It took the first jumping pass to do that.

“As soon as I landed the Lutz-toe, I was like, ‘I can get through this,’’’ she said.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

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

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to 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.

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