Nathan Chen digs into advanced statistics textbook while writing his own such numbers in U.S. skating record book

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The wonk in Nathan Chen has ensured that even while he is taking time off from attending college, he isn’t taking time off from studying.

Chen, a rising junior at Yale, decided last fall was as good a time as any to begin a leave of absence from school to prepare for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics because his classes would have been remote even if he had been in New Haven, Connecticut.

But he got friends to send him the textbooks he will eventually be using in chemistry and advanced statistics courses for a little light reading.

“Nothing super serious,” he said during a Zoom interview last week. “Just trying to get through a chapter a day.”

After two seasons of questions about whether he could remain among the world’s leading skaters with a full course load at a university 3,000 miles from his coach (the answer was an emphatic, “yes”), Chen came to realize that the balance between school and skating helped him with both.

On the skating side, Chen’s results speak for themselves as he seeks a fifth straight title at the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas, with the men’s short program Saturday and free skate Sunday.

Since matriculating at Yale in the fall of 2018, Chen has won a second straight world title, a third and fourth straight U.S. title, two straight Grand Prix Final titles and 11 straight competitions. His dazzling performances at the 2019 worlds and 2019 Grand Prix Final produced the two highest free skate and total scores ever under the current system.

“I miss it,” Chen said of being at Yale, where he is majoring in statistics and data science. “Having the change of mind as you switch from skating to school is a nice break from skating.

“[I miss] being able to spend time with friends, go to study groups and work with TAs (teaching assistants) and professors, to feel you are being mentally stimulated in a way you don’t find skating. I still find that a little bit because I’m keeping up with the material. Of course, it’s very different without the exams and homework and stuff like that.”

He was on campus until March of last year, when the pandemic led Yale to send its students home. Chen finished his sophomore year with final exams that he took online from California, and he intends to formally resume his education in the fall of 2022.

Chen’s longtime coach, Rafael Arutunian, frequently said in the past two years how he wanted more face-to-face time with Chen. Chen told Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports in August that he had originally been likely to return to Yale for the 2020-21 academic year and then take a leave in the 2021-22 academic year, but the pandemic changed his plans.

“I was surprised by not only how well he did the last two seasons but because he kept everything we did years before,” Arutunian said. “I also wasn’t surprised because if you build something well, it lasts longer. The surprise is he kept everything for two years.”

The pandemic and California fires have presented new challenges for Chen. His rink shut down for the first nine weeks of spring. He wears a mask while training in a high intensity sport, and the mask took on a dual purpose when smoke from the fires infiltrated the rink.

His apartment building was evacuated because it was close to one of the fires. That occurred as he was driving back from Las Vegas after winning a fourth straight Skate America title in late October, leading him to spend a night with his brother in San Diego.

“A lot of people are struggling a lot more than elite athletes, so I don’t think there is much to complain about,” Chen said. “Man, we get this opportunity, so make the most of it.

“I’m just really appreciating the fact that I have training time, healthy training mates and people that are being responsible and staying safe — and going to nationals and having the opportunity to compete.”

Chen is on the verge of becoming the first man to win five straight U.S. singles titles since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button in 1950. (Button would extend that U.S. streak to seven before retiring from competition with two Olympic gold medals and five world titles.) Chen fully understands the significance of being linked to Button, the greatest – and most dominant – skater in U.S. history.

“Dick has a name that has been around forever and definitely was a source of inspiration [for me] growing up,” Chen said. “[Winning a fifth straight] can be something I can cherish dearly the rest of my life.”

Since results became less predictable with the end of compulsory figures after the 1990 season, only one man other than Chen has won more than two straight titles (Johnny Weir, with three). And Chen’s huge margins of victory attest to his national dominance: 55 points in 2017, then 41, 58 and 37.

“For now, I don’t compare anyone to Dick Button,” Arutunian said. “If Nathan continues to build his skating, he can be like Dick Button.”

Chen’s historical peers at the U.S. Championships – some of the men who also won four straight national titles – are impressed by what he has done so far.

From Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion: “He has won at every level, and that hasn’t prevented him from continuing to want more and move forward. Technically he is solid, or should I say, ‘perfect.’ There isn’t a moment when he’s on the ice that he isn’t building a score.”

From Brian Boitano, 1988 Olympic champion: “His composure. His ease of jumping. His humility. They are all equal things I admire about him.”

From Hayes Jenkins, 1956 Olympian champion: “Nathan continues to mature artistically. His presentation has become more refined as he continues. I know he has a background in ballet, and he is managing to show that side of himself within the confines of the IJS system.”

Chen reflected last week on how difficult it is to include more artistry in programs packed with quadruple jumps.

“I tried to expand time in the choreo sequence of the long program, sneaking a couple seconds here and there throughout the (rest of) the program,” Chen said. “But it is so technically loaded right now that it is hard for me to steal some time before a certain element just because I need a certain amount of time to prep for a salchow or a certain amount of time to prep for a toe (loop) or whatnot.”

Chen likely will attempt four quads in the long program at this national championships, but don’t expect one to be the quad loop he dragged out of mothballs for the team competition that followed Skate America. He had last included the jump in competition at the 2017 Japan Open.

“I would love to do it, but the success (rate) has been quite low recently in practice, so that is sort of a game-time decision,” Chen said. “If I am able to get my success rate up a little bit, then I think that I will have a higher chance of putting it in. If it is going the way it is now, probably not.”

Like all the other top skaters in a season that has lurched along while looking for ways to mitigate the COVID-19 risk – no fans at the U.S. Championships, as was the case at Skate America; athletes and coaches in a Las Vegas hotel/rink bubble – Chen is aware that the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are inexorably creeping closer.

“That is in the back of everyone’s mind,” he said.

Under normal circumstances, the world championships in the pre-Olympic season would be the most significant event before the Winter Games. The 2021 championships in late March in Stockholm still are scheduled to take place. The 2020 worlds in Montreal were cancelled.

“If they have it, I would love to be there.” Chen said of worlds. “I am just a little concerned about coronavirus and the safety of the athletes… as long as everyone is safe, and it is a responsibly done event, by all means, I would love to be there.”

Part of his desire to be at worlds is the chance to compete again with two-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Each credits the other’s success for having pushed him to greater heights. They have not met since the 2019 Grand Prix Final.

“Competing with him is such a unique feeling and experience, and I really love it and always look forward to it,” Chen said of Hanyu.

Chen was among those duly impressed by how well Hanyu skated at the Japanese Championships in late December. It was Hanyu’s first competition since February.

“I know he has been training by himself, and training in isolation is pretty tough, so I give him a lot of credit for still being able to stay on top of his game,” said Chen, who has beaten the redoubtable Hanyu in their two most recent meetings, both in the 2019-20 season.

They have not only an exciting skating rivalry but also a commitment to higher education in common. In September, Hanyu completed his degree in human information science at Waseda University, using motion capture to convert movement on the ice into digital data.

The two rulers of the sport also are kings of the nerds.

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

Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth

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France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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