With brilliant skating by the top three, Nathan Chen still leaves no room at the top

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When a skater has been as dominant as Nathan Chen has for three seasons, it is not surprising many others look at him as untouchable.

That feeling is even shared by a skater like Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist and, like Chen, a 2018 Olympian.

“I have come to the realization that pretty much everyone – and also myself, inadvertently – puts whoever is at the top on a pedestal, and anyone not on that pedestal has no chance of winning,” Zhou said.

“Obviously, Nathan is an amazing skater. But I want to be the best I can and if that means I can win, that’s great.”

In Saturday’s short program at the U.S. Championships, when the top three finishers all skated brilliantly, Zhou came as close as he ever has to making room for himself at the top next to a Chen at the top of his game.

“I was aware of what he did,” said Chen, who skated more than an hour later. “Vincent is extremely talented, and I know he is going to throw it down every time he skates. I’m thrilled I was able to skate the way that I did.”

It was hard to remember another competition in which three men skated short programs as well as Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown. One can only imagine what the crowd reaction would have been had they not been compelled to compete in an empty Las Vegas arena out of COVID-19 safety concerns.

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Chen, seeking a fifth straight national title and a 12th straight win in individual live competitions, won with the most technically difficult short program he had done since 2018. He scored 113.92 with an opening quad lutz and a quad flip-triple toe combination in the rare bonus air of the program’s second half, but, ever the perfectionist, he expressed some disappointment with landings on some of the jumps in the Latin-themed program.

Zhou, whose life has been unsettled both of the last two seasons, did by far the best short program of his career, not only for hitting a quad lutz-triple toe (with two hands over his head on the lutz) and quad salchow but for the way he entered and executed his jumps, especially the series of running three-turns leading to the triple Axel. His success in showing himself as far more than a herky-jerky jumper brought 107.79 points.

And Brown, who had not competed since last February because of pandemic travel restrictions related to his training in Canada, gave a literally and figuratively breathtaking debut performance to the Nina Simone song, “Sinnerman,” a program his choreographer, Rohene Ward, had created with inspiration from the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey’s interpretation of that piece.

In perfect harmony with the music’s relentless, driving energy, his edge work producing a seamless dynamic flow, Brown painted a vivid physical tableau, no more so than in his movements while kneeling in the final few seconds. The shapes and angles of his body were stunning, especially given the need to spin and jump. Unsurprisingly, he got the highest component scores of the event, and, even without a quad, a total score of 100.92.

“This is not an easy program,” Brown said. “And it’s not easy doing it without an audience. I’m planning to keep it for two years, which speaks to the difficulty of the program and also the desire of doing it in front of a crowd, taking their energy as well.

“Rohene knows what I am capable of, and he can see what something can be before I can. He wants to push me as much as he can.”

Since finishing fifth in the 2018 Winter Olympics, where he won the free skate after a disastrous 17th in the short program, Chen has won 22 of his last 23 live competitive programs, with a third in the short at the 2018 French Grand Prix his only loss. The streak includes two world titles and two Grand Prix Final titles.

So it is no wonder his rivals are likely to put him on a pedestal.

It was also unsurprising that Chen expressed admiration for what Zhou and Chen had done in the most challenging circumstances any of them had experienced in their skating careers.

“The season has been just crazy,” Chen said. “Everything has been so unexpected. I’m really impressed with how everyone has been able to put their stuff together.”

Zhou, who grew up in Palo Alto, California, began dealing with the unexpected even before the pandemic began to hit North America full force last March, forcing the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships in Montreal.

“Just this morning, I was thinking that a year ago at this time I had almost quit skating,” Zhou said after his short program. “Then the pandemic happened, and the world was thrust into this constant state of not knowing what comes next.”

His plan to combine skating with his freshman year at Brown University in 2019 fell apart in the first semester because of issues in getting ice time without making a draining commute to a rink north of Boston. Zhou first stopped skating at all, then decided to leave school and move with his mother to Toronto to train with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol.

With barely two weeks of steady training before last year’s nationals, Zhou wisely limited his jumps to one quad in each program and finished a respectable fourth. When the 2020 worlds were cancelled, the Zhous immediately left Canada for Colorado, and his intentions to return to Canada were eventually stymied by the course of the pandemic.

With major international competitions cancelled or made domestic-only so far this season, Zhou found himself having more time to work on the refinements that would give his performance to Josh Groban’s version of “Starry, Starry Night” an ethereal feeling to complement the homage to another Vincent – the painter Van Gogh.

Working with Nichol via Zoom and both Josh Farris and Ben Agosto at his Colorado Springs rink, Zhou concentrated for two months on transitions and building momentum with the blade strokes so his center of mass would be constantly flowing and moving in the direction he wanted. That made it possible to execute with seeming effortlessness things like the running three turns into the triple Axel.

For Chen, who is exhausting the superlatives available to describe him, each competition becomes something like a game of “Can You Top This?” In Sunday’s free skate, he plans five quads for the first time at nationals since 2018.

“You know me: I like to always challenge myself and one-up myself after every competition,” Chen said. “But it will be a game-time decision.”

For a real showstopper, Chen might consider skating to his own recording. He has posted video of himself on the piano, working through the beginning of the minimalist Philip Glass music in his free skate. What would the base value be for that?

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

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USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too. The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred.

USA Boxing said that Russian and Belarusian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties world Alpine skiing championships medals record

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Mikaela Shiffrin took silver behind Italian Marta Bassino in the super-G for her 12th world Alpine skiing championships medal, tying the modern individual record.

Bassino edged Shiffrin by 11 hundredths of a second in Meribel, France, for her second world title after sharing parallel gold in 2021.

“That was the best run I can do on this track,” Shiffrin told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “I had one turn … coming off the [final] pitch where I almost lost it all.

“I’m so happy with my run.”

Austrian Cornelia Huetter and Norwegian Kajsa Vickhoff Lie tied for bronze, 33 hundredths back in a discipline where five different women won this season’s five World Cup races.

Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami, the reigning Olympic and world champ, led at the last intermediate split but lost 44 hundredths to Bassino in the final 18 seconds of the course and ended up sixth.

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With her 12th world medal, the 27-year-old Shiffrin tied Kjetil Andre Aamodt, a Norwegian star of the 1990s and 2000s, for the most in individual events since World War II. Aamodt earned his 12th and final medal in his 27th world championships race. Shiffrin matched him in her 15th worlds start.

Swede Anja Pärson holds the overall record of 13 modern medals. She won two in the team event.

Shiffrin has six gold medals, one shy of that modern record.

Shiffrin, the greatest slalom skier in history, is selective when it comes to the speed events of downhill and super-G. She has never raced the downhill at worlds and will not enter Saturday’s race.

In the super-G, she now has a world championships medal of every color and is one of two skiers in history to make the super-G podium at three consecutive worlds. The other is Austrian legend Hermann Maier.

“I’m emotional because I don’t really feel like I should be winning a medal in super-G right now,” said Shiffrin, who had a win and a seventh place in two World Cup super-G starts this season and was sixth in the super-G run of Monday’s combined. “There are so many women who are strong and fast.”

Shiffrin rebounded from Monday’s first race of worlds, where she was in line for combined gold before losing her balance with five gates left and straddling the third-to-last gate in her slalom run. That snapped her streak of a medal in 10 consecutive world championships races dating to 2015.

After Wednesday’s race, Shiffrin called the past 48 hours “stressful.” She shed tears in the live ORF interview soon after her run, then later clarified that she misunderstood what the interviewer said in German.

“The last two or four weeks, well, really the last year, but especially in the last few weeks, I must have answered 100 questions about this world championships and basically if I’m worried that it’s going to be the same as what the Olympics was last year, if I’m worried about the disappointment, if I’m afraid of it,” Shiffrin, whose best individual Olympic finish last year was ninth, with three DNFs, said in a later press conference when asked about the ORF interview. “I was like, ‘I survived the Olympics, so I’m not afraid that it’s going to kill me if I don’t win a medal this world championships.’ That’s what I’ve been saying, but for sure, you get asked the same thing again and again. It’s so hard to keep the balance in your mind to answer this question and still be positive and still think I can do this. I can ski my best. I can make it to the finish. And then after the combined, I was like, you have got to be kidding me. My DNF rate now in my entire career, over 50 percent of it is at Olympics or world championships. Like, c’mon. It’s almost funny. And it’s only funny because I was able to win a medal today. The pressure’s not off, but there’s for sure a little bit of relief.”

Worlds continue with the men’s super-G on Thursday. Shiffrin’s next race is expected to be the giant slalom on Feb. 16.

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