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

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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.

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Johnny Gregorek runs fastest blue jeans mile in history

Johnny Gregorek
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Johnny Gregorek, a U.S. Olympic hopeful runner, clocked what is believed to be the fastest mile in history for somebody wearing jeans.

Gregorek recorded a reported 4 minutes, 6.25 seconds, on Saturday to break the record by more than five seconds (with a pacer for the first two-plus laps). Gregorek, after the record run streamed live on his Instagram, said he wore a pair of 100 percent cotton Levi’s.

Gregorek, the 28-year-old son of a 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic steeplechaser, finished 10th in the 2017 World Championships 1500m. He was sixth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

He ranked No. 1 in the country for the indoor mile in 2019, clocking 3:49.98. His outdoor mile personal best is 3:52.94, ranking him 30th in American history.

Before the attempt, a fundraiser was started for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, garnering more than $29,000. Gregorek ran in memory of younger brother Patrick, who died suddenly in March 2019.

“Paddy was a fan of anything silly,” Gregorek posted. “I think an all out mile in jeans would tickle him sufficiently!”

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U.S. Open mulls no fans, group flights, coronavirus tests as decision looms

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Charter flights to ferry U.S. Open tennis players and limited entourages from Europe, South America and the Middle East to New York. Negative COVID-19 tests before traveling. Centralized housing. Daily temperature checks.

No spectators. Fewer on-court officials. No locker-room access on practice days.

All are among the scenarios being considered for the 2020 U.S. Open — if it is held at all amid the coronavirus pandemic — and described to The Associated Press by a high-ranking official at the Grand Slam tournament.

“All of this is still fluid,” Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Tennis Association’s chief executive for professional tennis, said in a telephone interview Saturday. “We have made no decisions at all.”

With that caveat, Allaster added that if the USTA board does decide to go forward with the Open, she expects it to be held at its usual site and in its usual spot on the calendar. The main draw is scheduled to start Aug. 31.

“We continue to be, I would say, 150% focused on staging a safe environment for conducting a U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on our dates. It’s all I wake up — our team wakes up — thinking about,” Allaster said. “The idea of an alternative venue, an alternative date … we’ve got a responsibility to explore it, but it doesn’t have a lot of momentum.”

An announcement should come from “mid-June to end of June,” Allaster said.

All sanctioned competition has been suspended by the ATP, WTA and International Tennis Federation since March and is on hold until late July.

The French Open was postponed from May to September; Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since 1945.

There is no established COVID-19 protocol for tennis, a global sport with several governing bodies.

“Everybody would agree to the fundamental principles, I’m sure: protecting the health of participants, following the local laws and minimizing the risk of the transmission of the virus,” said Stuart Miller, who is overseeing the ITF’s return-to-tennis policy. “But then you have to get down into the specific details.”

One such detail: The USTA wants to add locker rooms — including at indoor courts that housed hundreds of temporary hospital beds at the height of New York’s coronavirus outbreak — and improve air filtration in existing spaces. Also being considered: no locker-room access until just before a match. So if anyone goes to Flushing Meadows just to train, Allaster said, “You come, you practice, and return to the hotel.”

The USTA presented its operational plan to a medical advisory group Friday; now that will be discussed with city, state and federal government officials.

MORE: Olympic tennis: Key questions for Tokyo Games in 2021

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