Reigning champ Nathan Chen doesn’t hide his anxieties about getting to, competing at figure skating worlds in Sweden

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Nathan Chen could have given a blandly optimistic answer to a question of whether he had any concerns over the long flight (with a connection) to get him from Los Angeles to Stockholm for next week’s World Figure Skating Championships.

Chen could have given a similarly anodyne response to a question about his concerns about staying safe and healthy once he is on the ground in Sweden for nine days.

But during a Zoom teleconference last week, the two-time defending world champion chose not to do either a Pollyanna or a Pinocchio about issues related to travel and the competition environment at a worlds taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much as he is “happy and grateful” to have the opportunity to compete at worlds, especially given the 2020 event scheduled for last March in Montreal was cancelled at the outset of this pandemic, Chen hesitated when asked if any part of him thinks it is a bad idea to have the 2021 worlds.

“Um…I don’t necessarily want to say,” he answered. “But I want the event to happen. As an athlete, you want to have these opportunities to compete. It’s just, like, safety. As long as they can ensure safety, then that’s all we can ask for.”

Parts of Europe are being hit with a third wave of the pandemic. Italy announced a new national lockdown Monday. The Czech Republic Monday added Sweden to its list of countries with the highest risk for COVID-19. Sweden’s daily case numbers have remained high, by its statistical standards, for the past month.

Chen, 21, on leave from his junior year at Yale, has not flown since the middle of last March, when he returned from the university in New Haven, Connecticut, to his home in Southern California. He drove from LA to Las Vegas for Skate America in October and the 2021 nationals in January, when he won a 12th straight individual live competition and a fifth straight U.S. title.

Next week he will face his stiffest competition in more than a year in rival Hanyu Yuzuru, the two-time reigning Olympic champion from Japan whom he last skated against at the Grand Prix Final in December 2019 (which Chen won).

Chen’s trip abroad is likely to take some 14 hours from takeoff to touchdown in Sweden. The overseas flight will be about 11 hours.

“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not [concerned about the trip],” Chen said. “I know in theory airplanes are safe due to the HEPA filter [air filtration system], but connections are still an issue…and on international flights, people will be taking off their masks to eat. Bathrooms are always sketchy.

“I have my anxieties about the travel. I’m sure it should be OK. I’ll do my very best to prevent my mask from slipping. Obviously, I will be double masking throughout the flight and just praying I don’t get sick.”

Since the International Skating Union council decided Jan. 28 to go ahead with worlds, it has worked with the organizing committee to create a tight bubble environment with no event spectators like the one U.S. Figure Skating was able to establish at its events in Las Vegas.

With that in mind, the ISU’s choice in June 2018 of Stockholm as 2021 host has turned out to be a stroke of good luck.

It is among few host cities in the world that could provide a main arena (Ericsson Globe), two practice arenas and a hotel for skaters and meet officials all so close to each other that no bus transport is needed. Everyone will be able to get from one place to the other on dedicated indoor walkways. The only time athletes will need a bus is to get to and from the airport.

No one without particular level accreditation for the event will be allowed into the official hotel, and everyone who asked for a single occupancy room received one, Ulrika Molin, project manager for the World Championships, said in a Monday email. All media interviews and press conferences will be virtual.

On COVID-19 safety plans, there are five ISU documents that cover everything from the federation’s general approach to having events during the pandemic to specific details about the way the Stockholm bubble will work.

The “bubble group” of accredited “Level 1” and “Level 2” participants, including skaters, ISU meet officials, ISU officials, team staff and organizing committee staff, are to arrive Saturday or Sunday. Official practices start Monday, and competition runs from March 24 through 27, with the exhibition gala the 28th.

To enter Sweden, each person must have evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of arrival. A second PCR test will be given at the official hotel before accreditation is issued, and another test is mandatory no later than four days after that.

Molin said there had been no consideration by the ISU or the organizing committee of an earlier arrival to allow a quarantine of at least a week.

The Swedish organizing committee is paying for competitors’ lodging and meals beginning with dinner Saturday and ending with lunch Monday, March 29.

World championships in 12 winter sports – all but two outdoors – have been held this year without such quarantines, 10 in Europe, one in Asia, one in the United States. Because of government health and entry regulations, the Australian Open tennis tournament imposed a 14-day quarantine period for all players coming into the country.

Team officials and coaches are “recommended” to leave as soon as their singles skater(s) or pair/dance team(s) have finished. Competition officials (judges, technical panel, data/replay officials) have been given specific departure dates.

While there are 25 more athletes entered than there were at the last figure skating worlds, in 2019 (167 from 43 nations to 192 from 40 nations), the total number of accredited personnel should be significantly smaller. The 2021 quotas include only one coach per skater/team; one official per national federation; no chaperones, guests or observers; and no ISU officials or office-holders who do not have a direct working connection to the event.

The ISU successfully pulled off a five-week-long bubble for long track speed skaters at Heerenveen, Netherlands, in January and February. It included 196 athletes who competed in four separate events – two World Cups, a European Championships and a World Championships. The ISU reported zero positives among the 2,000 PCR tests administered during the bubble.

The most potentially problematic area is whether those within the bubble follow general COVID-19 guidelines on masking, social distancing and socializing, and specific ones about forbidden behaviors in the bubble.

“Number one is making sure everyone is being responsible about wearing masks and social distancing, about taking this seriously,” Chen said. “I’d like not to name names, but I’ve seen how events have been run in the past year.

“As long as everyone’s staying proactive and being responsible about the requirements and what they’re supposed to do, as well as having, you know, having repercussions for not wearing masks or doing other things, I think that’d be better.”

The Russian Figure Skating Federation was called out within the skating community for its laissez-faire attitude toward mask wearing and social distancing at the Rostelecom Cup Grand Prix event in November. Several top Russian skaters contracted COVID not long after that event. Subsequent events in Russia also have seen disregard for the health rules in the “Guidelines for ISU Events During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” issued Aug. 31, 2020.

The final section of those guidelines covers sanctions for not following them, including loss of accreditation and potential disciplinary proceedings according to the ISU Constitution.

In a Dec. 4 email responding to my question of whether the Russian Figure Skating Federation should be sanctioned, ISU President Jan Dijkema acknowledged learning “the regrettable news about the situation involving positive test results for COVID-19 of certain Russian Skaters.” He said the ISU did not have enough information because the usually international Grand Prix competitions had become domestic-run events during the pandemic.

A follow-up email to Dijkema that day noting the violations were publicly visible on broadcast video and social media posts went unanswered.

The ISU also did not answer an email question this week about how the guidelines will be enforced in Stockholm.

“Ultimately, I will be there to compete, but I still have my worries about getting sick,” Chen said. “I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want anyone else to get sick. Bottom line is, I want everyone to stay healthy during this competition.”

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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Germany goes 1-2 at bobsled worlds; Kaillie Humphries breaks medals record

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Kim Kalicki and Lisa Buckwitz gave Germany a one-two in the world bobsled championships two-woman event, while American Kaillie Humphries earned bronze to break the career medals record.

Kalicki, who was fourth at last year’s Olympics and leads this season’s World Cup standings, edged Buckwitz by five hundredths of a second combining times from four runs over the last two days in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Humphries, with push athlete Kaysha Love, was 51 hundredths behind.

Olympic champion Laura Nolte was in third place after two runs but crashed in the third run.

Humphries, 37 and a three-time Olympic champion between two-woman and monobob, earned her eighth world championships medal in the two-woman event. That broke her tie for the record of seven with retired German Sandra Kiriasis. Humphries is also the most decorated woman in world championships monobob, taking gold and silver in the two times it has been contested.

Humphries rolled her ankle after the first day of last week’s monobob, plus took months off training in the offseason while also doing two rounds of IVF.

“I chose to continue the IVF journey through the season which included a Lupron Depot shot the day before this race began,” she posted after her monobob silver last weekend. “My weight and body fluctuating all year with hormones, it was a battle to find my normal while competing again. I’m happy with this result, I came into it wanting a podium and we achieved it as a team.”

Love, who was seventh with Humphries in the Olympic two-woman event, began her transition to become a driver after the Games.

Worlds finish Sunday with the final two runs of the four-man event.

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Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.