Several takeaways from the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships that ended Saturday in Stockholm, Sweden, after four days of competition highlighted by Nathan Chen’s brilliant free skate to win his third straight world title:
1. What’s next for Nathan Chen after yet another stunning performance, this one with five clean quadruple jumps, a striking interpretive affinity to his music and the mental strength to forget the fall in the short program that had left him some eight points behind longtime rival Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan?
Pandemic-related uncertainties make his planning uncertain. He would like to go to the World Team Trophy, still scheduled for next month in Japan. He has no idea if there will be any shows for him to do this summer. Even the usual fall events could be affected should there be resurgence of COVID cases.
That means Chen’s attention could turn completely to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics before he expects.
Every U.S. man who has won worlds the year before the Olympics has gone on to win Olympic gold. That has happened five times. Two other times, a U.S. man won the Olympics after not winning the pre-Olympic worlds.
But Chen, 21, has learned from his 2018 Olympic experience not to get ahead of himself.
“If I try to take anything in bites that are too big, I’ll end up choking a little bit,” Chen said. “It’s probably better for me to take things piece by piece right now and build up for the Games.”
Despite having finished just sixth at the 2017 World Championships, Chen did so well on the Grand Prix circuit the next fall that a surprising buzz began about him winning the gold medal in South Korea. He admits having been caught up in the chatter and thinking too much about the result rather than what he needed to do for a real shot at it.
He fell apart in the short programs of both the Olympic team event and the individual competition, finishing 17th in the latter. Winning the free skate to get fifth overall was of minimal consolation.
“I think I definitely have grown since 2018,” he said. “That experience at the Games was a great teaching moment.”
Chen said he now is comfortable going into the Winter Games having won all three world meets since the 2018 Olympics and beaten Hanyu the three times they have met over that span.
“Who doesn’t want to be a three-time world champion?” Chen said. “I’m not going to say I regret having that. But every competition is different and has its own challenges to every athlete.”
2. Yuzuru Hanyu has given himself a whale of a challenge.
Making history with a quadruple axel jump has turned into a monomania for Hanyu like Captain Ahab’s chase of Moby Dick.
Hanyu’s obsession with the jump is becoming so all-consuming the two-time Olympic and world champion blamed it for his sloppy performance Saturday. Four major mistakes on jumping passes left Hanyu fourth in the free skate and third overall, his lowest finish in his last six appearances at worlds.
“Coming into this competition, I have been working a lot on my quad axel so I have overworked my body,” the 26-year-old Hanyu said through a translator. “It is important I get rested well [after worlds].
“However, I want to go back to practicing the quad axel again because I want to be the first person to land it cleanly in an official competition.”
For most people, trying simply to compete for a third straight Olympic title would be enough of a challenge. But seeking even harder challenges is how Hanyu has motivated himself for years, no matter that there is more than a little hubris in doing it after 11 seasons of subjecting himself to the rigors of competing on the sport’s senior level.
3. It wasn’t pretty, but Russia joined the United States (1991) as the only country to sweep the women’s medals at a world championship.
Each of the medalists – Anna Shcherbakova, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Aleksandra Trusova – fell in her free skate. Despite falling twice and making a hash of another jumping pass, Trusova won the free skate by taking full advantage of a scoring system that gave her a zillion base value points for trying five quads and fully rotating three.
Still, it is impossible not to share some of Tuktamysheva’s tearful joy at not only her first world medal since 2015 but also her first appearance since 2015, when she won gold. Since then, she had been swept aside by the young talent pouring off the pitiless Russian assembly line run by coach Eteri Tutberidze.
“After the fall, I thought all was lost, but I fought ‘til the end and when I saw my points (and realized she had won a medal), I was overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.
Now the question is whether Tuktamysheva, 24, or her younger teammates, Shcherbakova, 17 as of Sunday, and Trusova, 16, will wind up in the 2022 Olympics, so fast is the turnover in Russian women’s skating.
Of the skaters who will be 15-year-old first-year seniors next season, Kamila Valiyeva, who was second at the 2021 Russian senior championships behind Shcherbakova, looks like a good bet for the Beijing team. Daria Usachyeva (fourth at nationals) and Maya Khromykh (fifth) also are contenders.
And then there is Aliona Kostornaya, 17, who was the world’s leading woman heading into the cancelled 2020 worlds and then impetuously switched coaches, contracted COVID and wound up among the also-rans.
4. Yes, the absence of French couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the four-time world champions, turned the ice dance competition into a competitive free-for-all. (The Montreal-based team withdrew because of a litany of visa and training issues related to COVID, which they both contracted last summer.)
Lest anybody be reaching for asterisks, though, remember that you can only compete against whoever shows up. And Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, who had both contracted COVID in November, were decisively the best of the field in Stockholm, with a 6.46-point margin over U.S. silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, on the podium for the third straight worlds.
Sinitsina and Katsalapov are the first Russian dance world champions since 2009, the longest title drought for Russian or Soviet skaters since they began to dominate the event in 1970. Prior to the recent fallow stretch, they had won 28 of the previous 40 world titles.
5. It will be a week or so before anyone can know whether having the worlds during the pandemic will have health repercussions.
The International Skating Union announced that COVID screening once athletes arrived had produced three positives among 2,000 PCR tests and 1,000 antigen tests. The ISU said two of the positive cases were identified before the athletes received accreditation to get into the competition bubble. In the third case, the ISU said contact tracing had been done, with those affected testing negative.
Social media was abuzz with photographs showing various levels of non-adherence to safety protocols for the event.
Hubbell alluded to some of the lax behavior during the press conference after Saturday’s free dance.
“I have to acknowledge our federation, U.S. Figure Skating,” Hubbell said.
“This season I really feel they forged the way for what could be an event inside of a bubble (Skate America and the U.S. Championships), how they could do that safely. I know other federations had events, but they struggled with a lot of outbreaks of the virus.”
Russia has had a large percentage of the COVID cases among the world’s elite skaters.
6. The convoluted language in the ISU’s post-2018 rules about earning Olympic Games spots means no one will be sure for a while exactly how the final ones for 2022 will be determined at the Nebelhorn Trophy in late September.
The maximum in any individual discipline is three. In the recent past, nations got them at worlds with no further ado if their top two skaters in any event had finishes adding up to 13 or fewer.
Team USA can be sure of three spots in dance and two in pairs, the latter a gain of one over 2018.
In men’s and women’s singles, the U.S. has provisionally earned three apiece.
The rule affecting the men was clear since the U.S. had three entrants at worlds. Chen (1) and Jason Brown (8) had the appropriate total. Because the third, Vincent Zhou, did not qualify for the free skate (missing by one spot after a 25th in the short program), it means someone other than Chen or Brown has to “confirm” the third Olympic place.
It was more confusing for the women because the U.S. had only two entries and both not only made the free skate but also hit 13 on the nose, with a fourth by Karen Chen and a ninth by Bradie Tennell. It turns out that all countries with just two skaters or couples have to “confirm” their provisional allocation if they earned a third, and, once again, neither of the skaters from worlds can go to Nebelhorn.
It remains to be calculated how high a finish at Nebelhorn will be needed to get the job done.
The one sure thing is the new rules, even if they had been written clearly, eventually watered down one of the usually dramatic parts of the pre-Olympic worlds, the fight for spots at the next Winter Games.
7. It should not go unnoticed that it was a wonderful world meet for two Asian-American skaters named Chen, both on leave from Ivy League universities to prepare for the 2022 Olympics in China.
That Karen saved the United States’ hopes for a third Olympic women’s spot and Nathan won a third straight world title was especially meaningful at a time when Asian-Americans in the United States are suffering hate crimes and aggressions, both verbal and physical, because of their heritage.
In a media Zoom call Saturday after he had done mixed zone interviews and the official medalists’ press conference, Nathan Chen, was sadly grateful to be asked how he has dealt with the situation as a high-profile Asian athlete.
“Thank you for bringing that up,” Nathan Chen said. “Of course, it has impacted me because I am disgusted by the amount of hate and violence that has occurred upon Asian-Americans and Asians in general in the U.S.
“It’s scary for me. I worry about my parents more so than myself. I don’t want them to go out in the park to walk and then get beat up or [have] worse things to happen to them.
“The accounts of how many people are being affected daily is just staggering. It’s really disheartening to see that. Hopefully, the more this is brought to people’s eyes [and] the more repercussions placed upon people that are doing these things will put an end to this soon. My heart goes out to all the victims that have been unjustly attacked.”
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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