In figure skating’s long, strange trip of a season, Nathan Chen showed the way

ISU World Team Trophy - Day Two
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What a long, strange trip it has been for figure skating over the past 13 months.

From the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships in Montreal when the first wave of the pandemic hit full force last March through dealing with two more COVID waves since then, the International Skating Union had to:

*Cancel six of the 10 events (and indefinitely postpone two more) in the second-tier Challenger Series of international events.

*Remake the top tier, six-event Grand Prix Series as domestic-only, with no Final and both France and Canada cancelling their GP events. (Canada also cancelled its national championships.)

*Cancel its two regional championships, the European Championships and Four Continents Championships.

For all that, the season came to a satisfying end. The ISU pulled off both the 2021 World Championships last month in a Stockholm, Sweden, bubble with no spectators other than skaters and officials and the 2021 World Team Trophy last week in an Osaka, Japan, bubble with limited spectators – while Osaka prefecture was in a state of emergency due to a surge in COVID cases.

While the ISU reported three positive COVID tests in Sweden (only one after an athlete had been accredited), all leading to some form of quarantine, there have so far been no reports of cases linked to having participated in the world meet.

The unprecedented nature of this pre-Olympic season, in which both the United States and Canada created virtual events to give their athletes other chances to compete, makes it tricky to draw prognosticative conclusions from it with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics now less than a year away.

Nevertheless, here are some among the takeaways from the 2020-21 season:

1. Nathan Chen of the United States is now the odds-on favorite for the 2022 men’s singles gold medal.

Chen finished the season by winning his third straight world title and winning both programs at the World Team Trophy, where there is no overall individual winner. He has not lost in 13 live individual domestic and international events (plus a virtual event) since getting fifth at the 2018 Olympics, and he has won all 13 free skates and 11 of the 13 short programs in those events.

Among those wins were three over two-time (and reigning) Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, whose comments after losing both programs to Chen at the World Team Trophy made it seem Hanyu is less committed to competing in Beijing than he is to an apparently quixotic quest to land the first quadruple axel in competition.

2. Some also had projected Chen as 2018 Olympic champion, which was wishful thinking based on the injury that sidelined Hanyu for much of two months before the PyeongChang Games and the inconsistency of 2015 and 2016 world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

Having rebounded from a sloppy sixth-place performance at his senior worlds debut in 2017 with a victory at the 2017 Grand Prix Final (in Hanyu’s absence), Chen did seem to have a legitimate shot at Olympic bronze before he came undone in the short program.

Chen has since admitted being too focused on a medal instead of what he needed to do to win one. That is a mistake he is unlikely to make again.

3. Chen’s free skate program to Philip Glass’ music, with choreography by Shae-Lynn Bourne, drew the attention of the celebrated, multi-genre composer, a three-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner for his film scores (Chen used a section of the score from “The Truman Show.”) In an Instagram post, Glass congratulated Chen and noted he has “dominated men’s figure skating this season.”

Chen showed a physical as well as an intellectual understanding of Glass, having studied his music at Yale and having learned how to play part of it on the piano. The skater’s interpretation got more nuanced each time he performed it.

4. Anna Shcherbakova, the 2021 world champion, looks like the only sure bet to make the Russian Olympic team in women’s singles, so deep and talented is the field in the Motherland.

Both Kamila Valiyeva and Daria Usachyeva, first-year seniors internationally next season, are in a mix that also includes: the two women, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Aleksandra Trusova, who joined Shcherbakova in sweeping the worlds podium; and Aliona Kostornaya, the 2019 Grand Prix Final champion who got on a coaching change merry-go-round and contracted COVID this season.

Lest we forget: Alina Zagitova was a first-year senior when she won the 2018 Olympic title.

5. In barely a decade since its nadir at the 2010 Olympics, when it did not win a gold medal for the first time since its Winter Olympic figure skating debut in 1960, Russia has become preeminent again in the sport.

It won three world titles (women’s, pairs, dance), the first time that has happened since 2005. Yes, the result might have been different had ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France not taken the season off after contracting COVID and facing COVID-related logistical issues, but they were beaten in their last competition (2020 European Championships) by 2021 world champions Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia.

Even without an almost certain gold medal in the 2022 team event, Russia has a good chance at three more. Since ice dance became an Olympic event in 1976, Russian skaters have won three individual medals in four Olympics.

6. Thanks to a little-publicized and poorly-explained rule change, the United States must send a man and women to a qualifying event to earn the third Olympic singles spot in each discipline. (Under the rule in place until this year, the finishes of the top two U.S. men and the two U.S. women at worlds would have earned the maximum three sports with no further foofaraw.)

The challenge is seemingly not formidable, with the woman needing a top-six finish and the man a top-seven (among those seeking Olympic qualifying spots) at the Nebelhorn Trophy Challenger Series event Sept. 22-25 in Germany.

The hard part is deciding whom to send, since neither of the top two men (Nathan Chen and Jason Brown) or the women (Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell) are eligible, and there will be considerable pressure on whoever gets the assignment.

U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee will have to establish some selection parameters, which could include having the contenders do the same summer competition and/or having a judged competition at the annual Champs Camp, which will take place before the Sept. 15 entry deadline for Nebelhorn.

Does USFS send Vincent Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medalist and 2018 Olympic sixth-placer whose 25th in the short program at this year’s worlds created the qualification predicament? Or go for a skater with no significant senior international achievement (but no karmic weight on his shoulders), like Maxim Naumov, Camden Pulkinen, Tomoki Hiwatashi or, should he get U.S. citizenship in time, Yaroslav Paniot, who was fourth at the 2021 U.S. Championships?

The women’s contenders figure to be an ascendant Amber Glenn, second at nationals but with minimal international experience; highly experienced Mariah Bell, a disappointing fifth at nationals; and two-time (2019 and 2020) U.S. champion Alysa Liu, the former junior phenom who will be a first-year senior.

Liu had a season of struggles in which a growth spurt threw her jumping out of kilter, and COVID travel restrictions put the kibosh on her plans to spend some of the time training in Canada with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol following her decision last spring to leave longtime coach Laura Lipetsky.

With Liu’s coaching situation in the San Francisco Bay Area fleshed out and stabilized late last fall by having four-time U.S. singles champion Jeremy Abbott join Italian Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali as her mentors, she wound up missing the top three at nationals by less than two points.

7. Nebelhorn is among 10 events on an ISU 2021 Challenger Series schedule released last week. The Beijing event, scheduled Oct. 13-17, will be the Olympic test event. That test event was supposed to be last season’s Grand Prix Final.

8. Yuma Kagiyama, 17, was the revelation of the pre-Olympic season. After a third at the Japanese Championships, the effervescent Kagiyama was second at his debut worlds, landing both his quads cleanly in the short program and all three cleanly in the free skate. He was second in each program.

9. The expected return of Papadakis and Cizeron and the good vibes Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier got from judges at worlds (second in the free skate, third overall) mean Team USA faces a serious challenge to win an Olympic ice dance medal for the fifth straight time.

10. Like fine wine: Coach Aleksei Mishin turned 80 two weeks before worlds, where he had the women’s singles silver medalist (Tuktamysheva) and the men’s fifth and eighth placers (Mikhail Kolyada and Yevgeny Semenenko).

Mishin’s one-time pairs’ partner, Tamara Moskvina, turns 80 in June. The pairs’ teams she coaches won gold and bronze at worlds.

Molodyets!

11. For U.S. pairs’ teams, who have struggled to be competitive most of the 21st century, there was statistically significant improvement at worlds: two teams in the top 10 for the first time since 2012. First-year team Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, the 2021 U.S. champions, were seventh; Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the 2019 U.S. champions, were ninth. No U.S. pair had finished higher than seventh at worlds since a sixth in 2011. Given how much COVID restrictions curtailed the time Knierim and Frazier had to get used to each other, their performances at nationals and worlds created optimism about their future.

12. As frustrating as it was to cover the U.S. Championships and World Championships remotely, big props to the communications staff at USFS and the ISU for making it possible. The virtual mixed zones and press conferences at both events provided good athlete availability to the media.

A special thanks to Michael Terry of USFS for arranging needed extra interview time with both Nathan and Karen Chen at the World Championships.

13. And props to the athletes by being respectfully thankful for what they had in in terms of competitions and training while noting, but not lamenting or harping on, the many dislocations to their athletic lives.

14. No one expressed such thanks more frequently or sincerely than Nathan Chen. In becoming a champion for all time, the first U.S. man to win three world titles since 1984 and first to win five straight national titles since 1950, Chen was, best of all, a champion for these times.

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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