With comeback drama adding to the moment, Nathan Chen skates into a league of his own

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Four
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In any sport, a competitor embraces praise from live spectators and other fans but nothing means more than acclamation from his or her athletic peers and decorated predecessors.

So it was that even at a 2021 World Figure Skating Championships where no spectators were allowed because of COVID-19 safety precautions, Nathan Chen still could hear and see the tribute he deserved.

The few people allowed in the Stockholm stands, who were accredited skaters, coaches and officials, gave Chen a standing ovation Saturday after the free skate of surpassing brilliance that would give him a third straight world title.

“There truly aren’t enough eloquent words I could use that would describe what Nathan just did,” his U.S. teammate, Jason Brown, said in a text message. “I watched in absolute awe.”

Chen landed five quadruple jumps, beginning with a lutz, the jump that had been his undoing in Thursday’s short program. His technical scores were orders of magnitude higher than anyone else’s, and his component scores were also the highest, wiping out a deficit after the short created by a fall on the lutz as surprising as it was rare, since Chen had not fallen on any jump since December 2018.

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The short program winner, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, skated last and likely needed a flawless free skate to hold his 8.13-point lead over Chen. That point became moot when Hanyu made four mistakes to finish third (289.18), behind his 17-year-old teammate, Yuma Kagiyama (291.77), as well as Chen (320.88).

“I felt almost a sense of relief after the short program, having made a mistake, not knowing if I’m really in a position to vie for first anymore,” Chen said. “I was kind of like, `I’m going to try my best in the [free] program, and whatever happens, happens.’ It took away some of the stress.”

Chen, 21, became the first U.S. skater to win three consecutive world titles since Scott Hamilton won his third of four straight in 1983. Chen has won the titles by 29, 22 and 48 points. They came over four years because the 2020 worlds were cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic.

“When Nathan Chen is on his game, he is virtually unbeatable,” 1984 Olympic champion Hamilton said via text Saturday. “When you look at the scoring distance between first and second place, Nathan is in a league all by himself.”

The drama of having to come from behind to win for the first time at worlds gave this skate of surpassing quality an aura of being the most impressive performance of Chen’s career.

“There is perhaps nothing as satisfying as a comeback, but Nathan kicked into a perfection gear that truly makes him untouchable,” 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said in a text.

Yet neither he nor his coach, Rafael Arutunian, called it Chen’s greatest free skate. It was, for what it’s worth, almost three points below his international personal best score of 224.92, from the 2019 Grand Prix Final, which also is the world best score.

“This is just another step forward,” Arutunian said via text.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was my best free program ever, but it’s definitely one I will remember forever and cherish being able to skate like that and skate this piece [of music] here in Sweden at worlds,” Chen said.

Chen skated with a full comprehension of his music, by a contemporary American composer, Philip Glass, whom Chen had studied in a course at Yale. Chen’s choreographer, four-time world ice dance bronze medalist Shae-Lynn Bourne of Canada, chose the music for him, drawing on parts of several Glass works: Metamorphosis II, Violin Concerto No. 1, and “Truman Sleeps,” from the score to the movie, “The Truman Show.”

In the footwork sequence, when the music called for understated expression to match the quiet minimalism that is Glass’ hallmark, that was how Chen moved and emoted. In the choreographed sequence, when the music became more powerful, so was Chen.

“I don’t think having a little more knowledge about him (Glass) necessarily creates a different portrayal on the ice, but I think it does help me appreciate his music a little bit more and recognize the underlying genius that he has in being able to create something out of nothing,” Chen said.

“The music is beautiful. Having music that moves you as you skate helps you as an athlete continue throughout the program and gets you in a mindset that makes you happy and present.”

It was fitting, then, that Chen received his highest program component score, 9.68 (of a maximum 10), in the “interpretation of the music” category. He had the highest PCS scores of the event in every category.

Hanyu long has earned what always seemed an unassailable PCS advantage, but that hasn’t come into play as much lately because of technical mistakes that also have had some impact on the component scores in two of his last three losses to Chen.

But the two-time Olympic champion was off from the beginning of his free skate Saturday. He made a consequential mistake on his first jumping pass, putting a hand down on the landing of a quad loop, another on the second, a hand down on the landing of a not-fully-rotated quad salchow, and another on the third, a triple axel.

“It was very exhausting and like I was losing my balance one-by-one,” Hanyu said. “I tried to make sure that I didn’t fall, so I worked hard to make sure I kept it together. I realized there were a lot of jumps one after another that were not clean.”

Hanyu wound up with negative grades of execution on four jumping passes, leaving him fourth in the free skate.

It was his lowest free skate finish ever at the senior level in 10 global championships and seven Grand Prix Finals, and his lowest in any competition since a fifth at the 2017 Autumn Classic.

It also meant that Hanyu, for all his brilliance, has not skated two clean programs (no negative GOEs or zero-points elements) in the same competition since the 2015 Grand Prix Final. He now has lost all three meetings with Chen since the 2018 Olympics, when Hanyu won a second straight gold and Chen fifth despite winning the free skate because he had imploded in a 17th-place short program.

And yet Chen admitted Hanyu still awes him.

“He’s one of those athletes where when you step up [to him], you’re a little star struck…even now.” Chen said. “He has just been around a long time and has been consistently successful. That’s really impressive.”

So is Chen’s having won 13 straight live individual competitions since the 2018 Winter Olympics. That includes the three world titles, three U.S. titles and two Grand Prix Finals.

The way he has done it is just as impressive. He, Hanyu and Japan’s Shoma Uno (fourth Saturday) were the only skaters to have done free skates with four or more jumping passes that included clean quads; of the 15 times that has happened, Chen now accounts for eight.

Saturday they were quad lutz, quad flip-triple toe, quad salchow (with an intricate entry), quad toe-Euler-triple flip and quad toe-triple toe. The two final combinations came in the second half of the four-minute program, when they earn a 10-percent bonus.

According to skatingscores.com, Chen and Hanyu are the only ones to have attempted two bonus-period quad combinations, four times each. Only Chen has done all eight of those combinations cleanly.

“It is jaw-dropping stunning what he does,” said Brown, who finished seventh, helping the U.S. earn a chance to confirm three men’s spots at the 2022 Olympics but failing once again to land a fully rotated quad for the first time in his career.

Chen unsurprisingly does not allow himself the luxury of stepping back to consider how remarkable his skating is.

“I step back to realize how remarkable it is to be at these competitions rather than what I am doing,” Chen said. “Once I retire, I’ll be able to look back at my career and be pretty happy with it.

“As of now, I’m trying to stay grounded. I saw a lot more improvement to be done. This is definitely a lot of my (coaching) speaking through me, but I really appreciate that. A soon as I become complacent in what I do, I don’t think I’ll be good anymore.”

There is, after all, still an Olympic medal missing from his record. He went into the 2018 Olympics as a title possibility. Now he is the odds-on favorite at next year’s Winter Games in Beijing.

Being acclaimed by one and all as Olympic champion is what could end up counting the most for Chen.

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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Mikaela Shiffrin finishes World Cup with one more win, two more records and a revelation


Mikaela Shiffrin finished a season defined by records with two more.

Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals giant slalom on the final day of the campaign, breaking her ties for the most career women’s giant slalom wins and most career podiums across all women’s World Cup races.

Shiffrin earned her record-extending 88th career World Cup victory, prevailing by six hundredths over Thea Louise Stjernesund of Norway combining times from two runs in Andorra on Sunday.


She won her 21st career GS, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s.

She made her 138th career World Cup podium across all events, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin earned her 138th podium in her 249th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

Earlier this season, Shiffrin passed Vonn and then Ingemar Stenmark, a Swede of the 1970s and ’80s, for the most career Alpine skiing World Cup victories. She won 14 times from November through March, her second-best season after her record 17-win campaign of 2018-19.

In those years in between, Shiffrin endured the most difficult times of her life, was supplanted as the world’s top slalom skier and questioned her skiing like never before.

On Saturday afternoon, Shiffrin was asked what made the difference this fall and winter. There were multiple factors. She detailed one important one.

“I had a lot of problems with my memory,” she said in a press conference. “Not this season, so much, but last season and the season before that. I couldn’t remember courses. And when I was kind of going through this, I couldn’t keep mental energy for the second runs.”

Pre-race course inspection and the ability to retain that knowledge for a minute-long run over an hour later is integral to success in ski racing. Shiffrin is so meticulous and methodical in her training, historically prioritizing it over racing in her junior days, that inspection would seem to fit into her all-world preparation.

She didn’t understand how she lost that ability until she began working with a new sports psychologist last summer.

“That was a little bit like less focus on sports psychology and more focus on, like, psychology psychology and a little bit more grief counseling style,” she said. “Explaining what was actually going on in my brain, like chemical changes in the brain because of trauma. Not just grief, but actually the traumatic experience itself of knowing what happened to my dad, seeing him in the hospital, touching him after he was dead. Those are things that you can’t get out of your head. It had an impact. Clearly, it still does.”

Shiffrin had a “weird a-ha moment” after her first course inspection this season in November in Finland.

“I didn’t take that long to inspect, and I remembered the whole course,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was like coming out of a cloud that I had been in for over two years.”

What followed was a win, of course, and a season that approached Shiffrin’s unrivaled 2018-19. Fourteen wins in 31 World Cup starts, her busiest season ever, and bagging the season titles in the overall, slalom and GS in runaways.

“After last season, I didn’t feel like I could get to a level with my skiing again where it was actually contending for the slalom globe,” she said. “And GS, I actually had a little bit more hope for, but then at the beginning of the season, I kind of counted myself out.

“I feel like my highest level of skiing has been higher than the previous couple of seasons, maybe higher than my whole career. My average level of skiing has been also higher than previous seasons, and my lowest level of skiing has also been higher.”

There are other reasons for the revival of dominance, though Shiffrin was also the world’s best skier last season (Olympics aside). She went out of her way on Saturday afternoon to credit her head coach of seven years, Mike Day, who left the team during the world championships after he was told he would not be retained for next season.

“He is as much a part of the success this entire season as he’s ever been,” said Shiffrin, who parted with Day to bring aboard Karin Harjo, the first woman to be her head coach as a pro.

Shiffrin’s greatest success this season began around the time she watched a a mid-December chairlift interview between retired Liechtenstein skier Tina Weirather and Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top downhiller. Goggia spoke about her disdain for mediocrity.

“Ever since then, pretty much every time I put on my skis, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t be mediocre today,’” Shiffrin said in January.

During the highest highs of this season, Shiffrin felt like she did in 2018-19.

“It is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I got to feel that kind of momentum through a season because after that [2018-19] season, I was like, this is never going to happen again, and my best days of my career are really behind me, which it was kind of sad to feel that at this point four years ago,” said Shiffrin, who turned 28 years old last week. “This season, if anything, it just proved that, take 17 wins [from 2018-19] aside or the records or all those things, it’s still possible to feel that kind of momentum.”

After one last victory Sunday, Shiffrin sat in the winner’s chair with another crystal globe and took questions from an interviewer. It was her boyfriend, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

“Excited to come back and do it again next year,” she replied to one question.

“Yeah,” he wittily replied. “You will.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties Lindsey Vonn record at World Cup Finals


Mikaela Shiffrin tied Lindsey Vonn‘s female record with her 137th career Alpine skiing World Cup podium, taking third place in the slalom at the World Cup Finals in Andorra on Saturday.

Shiffrin, racing for the second time since breaking Ingemar Stenmark‘s career Alpine World Cup wins record last Saturday, finished 86 hundredths behind Olympic champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, combining times from two runs.

Shiffrin was fourth after the first run. The top two after the first run stayed in that order after the second run — Vlhova, followed by first-time podium finisher Leona Popovic (the best World Cup finish for a Croatian woman in 16 years).

“Every single race I feel the weight of having to be one of the best in the world no matter what the day is, which is actually quite a privilege, but some days it’s quite heavy,” Shiffrin said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “But today it didn’t feel heavy. It just felt like a really good opportunity.”

Six of the 22 skiers skied out of the second run on soft snow.

In Shiffrin’s previous race at the season-ending Finals, she was 14th in Thursday’s super-G, which is not one of her primary events.

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Shiffrin earned her 137th podium in her 248th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

The only men with more Alpine World Cup podiums are the Swede Stenmark (155) and Austrian Marcel Hirscher (138).

Shiffrin’s first chance to break her tie with Vonn comes in Sunday’s giant slalom, the last race of the season, live on Peacock.

Shiffrin, who broke Vonn’s female career wins record of 82 in January, clinched season titles in the overall, GS and slalom before the Finals.

Also Saturday, Swiss Marco Odermatt won the men’s giant slalom by 2.11 seconds — the largest margin of victory in any men’s World Cup race in four years — for his 13th World Cup victory this season, tying the men’s single-season record.

He also reached 2,042 points for the season, breaking Austrian Hermann Maier‘s men’s record of 2,000 points in one season from 1999-2000.

Slovenian Tina Maze holds the overall record of 2,414 points from 2012-13.

“We partied hard on Thursday,” after winning the World Cup Finals super-G, Odermatt said, according to FIS. “Today wasn’t easy because of those damn 2,000 points. I really wanted the podium today. So, another victory, two seconds ahead, I don’t know what to say.”

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