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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