Self-sufficient Nathan Chen an easy winner at Skate Canada despite absence of coach at his side

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Nathan Chen has gotten used to training without his coach nearby, having done it during his freshman and sophomore years at Yale while Rafael Arutunian was 3,000 miles away in California.

But Saturday’s free skate at Skate Canada in Vancouver was the first time he had competed without Arutunian at his side in a significant competition during the 10 years they have worked together. With Chen on leave from Yale since May 2020, he and Arutunian had been together virtually every day since.

“He trains all of us to be pretty self-sufficient,” Chen said. “So whether he is there or not, we kind of know what we need to do.”

Chen said his winning performance was “not particularly” affected because Arutunian had to watch from the stands rather than the boards after the coach’s accreditation had been revoked for his inadvertent violation of Covid-19 protocols related to the bubble at the event.

“In this case, what went down was appropriate,” Chen said. “It was reasonable to adhere to the bubble protocol to keep us all safe.

“That being said, I’m glad he was still able to be in the arena and that he was able to give me a quick call before I stepped on the ice.”

With a 12-point lead after the short program and, as the final skater of an event where the other 11 men went from sloppy to just plain bad, Chen wisely chose a safe, workmanlike, unremarkable program layout to win the event by nearly 50 points.

After placing just third in Skate America last week, his first defeat since the 2018 Olympics, this victory assured Chen one of the six places in the early December Grand Prix Final.

He wound up with 307.18 points, a score only he and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan ever have topped. Jason Brown of the United States was second at 259.55, with senior international Grand Prix rookie Evgeny Semenenko third at 256.01.

None of the men did a free skate without a negative grade of execution. Chen and, ironically, last place free skate finisher Keiji Tanaka of Japan were the only ones with fewer than two negative GOEs.

Chen’s mistake was a sloppy execution of what was to be a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. His wonky landing on the first jump forced him to turn the second into a double.

He did four quads but chose to omit the lutz, the hardest quad a man or woman ever has done, after landing it cleanly in Friday’s short program to exorcise any demons that might have gotten into his head after falling on that jump in his previous two short programs at individual events. Three of the four quads in this free skate came in combinations.

“I definitely had better outings here than I did at Skate America. So I think this is a step forward, and as always with competitions, I want to push myself a little bit forward, a little bit forward, even if it means taking out an element to be a little cleaner,” Chen said.

Chen also indicated his choice of jumps also owed to his “dealing with a little bit of a hip thing.” The medalists’ press conference ended before he could be asked for specifics.

Chen’s longtime nemesis jump, the triple axel, has been one of his biggest assets so far this season. Saturday’s, done in the bonus period, produced his highest score ever for the solo element. One of his other three this season ranks 10th on his all-time list.

“Sometimes people don’t understand the pressure of every single element when you are doing such difficult jumps, whether it’s two quads in the short program or more in the free skate,” Arutunian said via telephone Saturday afternoon.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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