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.
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