In making history with fifth straight U.S. title, Nathan Chen competes against his own singular past

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The trouble with being Nathan Chen is, nearly all the time, you are being judged against your past brilliance.

Unless the redoubtable two-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is in the competition, that is.

But the two have met just twice since the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with Chen winning both, and pandemic-born uncertainty over the fate of the 2021 World Championships, currently scheduled for late March in Stockholm, and perhaps even next season’s events makes it is impossible to know when the next Chen-Hanyu showdown will take place.

Chen has simply been so extraordinary for so long and has dominated U.S. men’s skating so thoroughly since 2017 that it is getting too easy (and unfair) to take him for granted and forget he commandingly won a historic fifth straight U.S. title Sunday in Las Vegas because he did it with a less-than-jaw-dropping free skate.

A modest (by only his own standards) winning score of 322.28 still left Chen more than 30 points ahead of runner-up Vincent Zhou (291.38), a national medalist for the fourth time, this one after a one-year absence from the podium. Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion was third (276.92), his sixth medal at nationals.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m always just competing against myself,” Chen said. “The two guys I’m up here with are incredible skaters as well.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the fact everyone is capable of [winning], but I want to focus on what I’m capable of. Even if I’m competing against Yuzu, I’m still trying to do my own thing.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

How crazy is it that he cleanly landed four quadruple jumps, two to open combinations in the second half of the four-minute program, yet fell short of expectations because he nearly fell on the landing of a fifth? According to skatingscores.com, only three other skaters – Hanyu, Shoma Uno and Jin Boyang – have ever landed four or more clean quads in a free skate; of the 14 times that has happened, Chen has seven.

And, after all, Chen merely became the first to win five straight national titles since two-time Olympic champ Dick Button’s fifth of seven straight in 1950.

“It means the world,” Chen said of being in the historical company of Button. “Dick is a true skating icon. It feels incredible to be trying to chase something that someone like that has done.

“I am nowhere near the level he was at. It is just cool to be mentioned within his sort of realm of legendness.”

A day after the top three finishers all had skated virtuosic short programs, each struggled in the free skate. Zhou popped one of his four quad attempts and fell on another. Brown fell on his lone quad attempt and popped a triple Axel.

Ukrainian émigré Yaroslav Paniot, 23, turned heads and got third in the free skate with a strong, three-quad performance. Paniot, awaiting U.S. citizenship, was fourth overall (266.97) after getting 10th in his U.S. Championships debut a year ago.

“Everything went very smooth because I was finally in the best shape in my life,” said Paniot, a two-time Ukrainian champion who finished 30th in the 2018 Olympics for his native land. “Work, work, work, and you’ll get this result.”

In an effort to keep challenging himself, Chen was attempting a fifth free skate quad at nationals for the first time since 2018.

The fifth quad, a lutz, was his opening jump of the program. He stumbled on the landing and put both hands on the ice, which can constitute a fall if the judges think he would not have stayed upright without using his hands for support. They did not call it a fall, meaning Chen now has landed 129 jumps without a fall dating back to the 2018 Grand Prix Final.

Chen regrouped immediately to land a quad flip-triple toe loop combination and later hit a quad salchow, the high difficulty quad toe-Euler-triple flip combination and a quad toe-triple toe. He has long known how to prevent one mistake from ruining a program.

“Mistakes happen all the time in training, and most of us have been trained to just get up and continue,” Chen said.

“Initially, I was just trying to figure out what happened. It felt like everything was okay, so I was trying to figure out how could I prevent that from happening on the other jumps. As soon as I got myself settled, it was basically gone from my mind. Whenever a mistake happens in a program, I just generally snap right out of it.”

He never lost the connection to his music, by the minimalist Philip Glass, keeping its understated mood with less-is-more movements. One of the many remarkable things about Chen’s skating over the past five years has been his widely varied choice of music, from classical ballet to Elton John, from Stravinsky to Woodkid.

He has won five U.S. titles, two world titles and three Grand Prix Final titles. He has been at the forefront of the sport’s jump revolution. He has won 12 straight individual live competitions (and 23 of 24 programs in those events) since finishing fifth at the 2018 Olympics.

Even at less than perfection, even as he seeks his first individual Olympic medal, he is a generational skater.

“Of course, I would love to win the next Olympics, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s not like my legacy or who I am is ultimately diminished,” Chen said.

At age 21, competing largely against himself, he already has a singular place in skating history.

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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IOC gives more time to pick 2030 Olympic host, studies rotating Winter Games

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The 2030 Winter Olympic host, expected to be Salt Lake City or Sapporo, Japan, is no longer targeted to be decided before next fall, the IOC said in announcing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

The IOC Future Host Commission was granted more time to study factors, including climate change, that could impact which cities and regions host future Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The 2030 Winter Games host is not expected to be decided before or at an IOC session next September or October.

Hosts have traditionally been chosen by IOC members vote seven years before the Games, though recent reforms allow flexibility on the process and timeline. For example, the 2024 and 2028 Games were awarded to Paris and Los Angeles in a historic double award in 2017. The 2032 Summer Games were awarded to Brisbane last year without a traditional bid race.

There are three interested parties for the 2030 Winter Olympics, the IOC said Tuesday without naming them. Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. All three cities are attractive as past Winter Games hosts with existing venues.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030, but could step in for 2030 if asked.

The future host commission outlined proposals for future Winter Olympics, which included rotating hosts within a pool of cities or regions and a requirement that hosts have an average minimum temperature below freezing (32 degrees) for snow competition venues at the time of the Games over a 10-year period.

The IOC Executive Board gave the commission more time to study the proposals and other factors impacting winter sports.

The IOC board also discussed and will continue to explore a potential double awarding of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympic hosts.

Also Tuesday, the IOC board said that Afghanistan participation in the 2024 Olympics will depend on making progress in safe access to sports for women and young girls in the country.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to suspend Afghanistan until women and girls can play sport in the country.

In a press release, the IOC board expressed “serious concern and strongly condemned the latest restrictions imposed by the Afghan authorities on women and young girls in Afghanistan, which prevent them from practicing sport in the country.” It urged Afghanistan authorities to “take immediate action at the highest level to reverse such restrictions and ensure safe access to sport for women and young girls.”

The IOC board also announced that North Korea’s National Olympic Committee will be reinstated when its suspension is up at the end of the year.

In September 2021, the IOC banned the North Korean NOC through the end of 2022, including banning a North Korean delegation from participating in the Beijing Winter Games, after it chose not to participate in the Tokyo Games.

North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was the only one of 206 National Olympic Committees to withdraw from Tokyo. The country made its choice in late March 2021, citing a desire “to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection.”

The IOC said in September 2021 that it “provided reassurances for the holding of safe Games and offered constructive proposals to find an appropriate and tailor-made solution until the very last minute (including the provision of vaccines), which were systematically rejected by the PRK NOC.”

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Olympic champion Justine Dufour-Lapointe leaves moguls for another skiing discipline

Justine Dufour-Lapointe
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Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the 2014 Olympic moguls champion, is leaving the event to compete in freeriding, a non-Olympic skiing discipline.

“After three Olympic cycles and 12 years on the World Cup circuit, I felt that I needed to find a new source of motivation and had to push my limits even more so I can reach my full potential as a skier,” the 28-year-old Montreal native said in a social media video, according to a translation from French. “Today, I am starting a new chapter in my career. … I want to perfect myself in another discipline. I want to connect with the mountain differently. Above all, I want to get out of my comfort zone in a way I’ve never done before.”

Dufour-Lapointe said she will compete on the Freeride World Tour, a series of judged competitions described as:

There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. That’s it. Best run down wins. It truly is that simple. Think skiers and snowboarders choosing impossible-looking lines through cornices and cliff-faces and nasty couloirs. Think progressive: big jumps, mach-speed turns and full-on attack. Think entertaining.

Dufour-Lapointe has retired from moguls skiing, according to a Freeride World Tour press release, though she did not explicitly say that in social media posts Tuesday.

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Dufour-Lapointe denied American Hannah Kearney‘s bid to become the first freestyle skier to repeat as Olympic champion. Older sister Chloé took silver in a Canadian one-two.

Dufour-Lapointe also won the world title in 2015, then Olympic silver in 2018 behind Frenchwoman Perrine Laffont.

Chloé announced her retirement in September. A third Dufour-Lapointe Olympic moguls skier, Maxime, retired in 2018.

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