Three-time world champion Nathan Chen has gone back to the programs that produced his career best scores.
They are the short program to Charles Aznavour’s version of “La Bohème” and the free skate to an Elton John medley that Chen used in the 2019-20 season, which ended prematurely when the onset of the Covid pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 World Championships in Montreal.
At the 2019 Grand Prix Final, Chen’s short program to the Aznavour earned him a personal best 110.38 points. With the Elton John free skate at that event, Chen scored a world record 224.92 for a world record total of 335.30.
Chen was to revisit them for the first time competitively at this season’s Grand Prix Final two weeks ago, but it was cancelled because of complications related to the new Covid variant. So the revival now is likely to come at the 2022 U.S. Championships, in which Chen will seek a sixth straight title in a men’s competition that begins Jan. 8.
Chen coyly said “yeah, probably” when asked in a Monday media Zoom call if he would use the 2019-20 programs at nationals. “Further on in the season, still TBD (to be determined),” he added.
He had not seemed comfortable with this season’s programs, each of which had a cut-and-paste feeling, and Chen’s performances to them were underwhelming by his standards: a third place at Skate America, his first loss since the 2018 Olympics, and an easy if unremarkable victory at Skate Canada.
The short, to music by Benjamin Clementine, tacked part of his signature “Nemesis” program from 2018 onto the end of “Eternity,” a piece of music new to his skating repertoire.
The free skate was a Mozart medley all new to him, but it finished with a jarring segue from Mozart’s version of the mournful Lacrimosa section in his Requiem to a hip-hop Apashe remix of the Lacrimosa.
Neither program resonated the way Chen and his team had hoped in this Olympic season.
“Just the connection,” Chen said of the reason for changing. “Every time you get to perform a program, you know whether or not it makes sense, feels right. The programs felt a little off. That’s not to say it might not feel off in the future, but there are other programs I feel more connected to.”
There is also hip-hop in the final 30 seconds of the Elton John program, which was choreographed by ice dance coach Marie-France Dubreuil and Samuel Chouinard, her collaborator at the renowned Ice Academy of Montreal.
Shae-Lynn Bourne, an ice dance world champion, choreographed the “La Bohème” program. She also did both of the programs Chen used earlier this season as well as the signature “Nemesis” program and the programs with which he won a third straight world title last season.
This will be the first time in Chen’s six seasons at the senior international level that he has re-used entire old programs. This season’s previous short program was the first time he had re-used any part of an old program.
“My coach and choreographer and I agreed that you need to have something new and different and something you find enjoyment in doing, but it also has to be something you are genuinely so comfortable in doing,” Chen told me before Skate America. “It’s not necessarily worth the risk to do something completely different that you don’t have any experience with.”
The “La Bohème” program has particular resonance for Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, since both he and Aznavour are of Armenian descent.
“I really like the 2019-2020 programs,” Chen said. “I never got the chance to compete them at worlds.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
World champion Shoma Uno of Japan leads after the short program at the Grand Prix Final, the biggest figure skating competition of the fall. Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old American, is fifth out of six skaters after struggling on jumps on Thursday.
Uno, bidding for his first Final title after two silvers and two bronzes, landed a quadruple flip and quad toe loop-double toe combination en route to 99.99 points at the Palavela, the 2006 Olympic venue in Turin, Italy.
He takes a 5.13-point lead over countryman Sota Yamamoto going into Saturday’s free skate.
Malinin is fifth, 19.89 points behind, after stepping out of the landing on the back end of a quad toe-triple toe combination and spinning out of a triple Axel landing, putting a hand on the ice.
“It was a performance that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Malinin, who did not mention a left foot injury that affected him at his last competition (a win) two weeks ago. “We put a lot of effort trying to perfect all these movements in the program with all these jumps. The jumps didn’t go so well, but I think that my performance and my spins definitely have improved. … I just have to stay confident and look forward to the free skate.”
Malinin rallied from smaller short program deficits to win his first three competitions in his first full senior season, becoming the first skater to land a quad Axel in September and repeating it in October and November.
Uno, the world’s top returning skater after Yuzuru Hanyu retired and Nathan Chen went back to Yale, didn’t compete against Malinin at those earlier events.
“It wasn’t up to the levels of my best performance,” Uno said of Thursday’s short program, according to a translation. “But I think I was able to show what I’ve done this season up until this competition. I’m genuinely happy.”
The quad Axel is not a point-scoring element in short programs, but it is in free skates.
Malinin, the son of Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan, was second at last January’s U.S. Championships but left off the three-man Olympic team due to his relative inexperience. He went to senior worlds in March and finished ninth, then won the world junior title in April.
The Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the most exclusive figure skating competition. It was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara topped the pairs’ short program with 78.08 points, edging world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier by 43 hundredths of a point.
Miura and Kihara, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, are bidding to win the biggest title ever for a Japanese pair.
Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, recorded a personal best score with their first clean program since those worlds. Frazier put his hand on the ice on their side-by-side triple toe landings, but judges still barely graded it positively.
“We’ve made a big improvement from our [fall] Grand Prix [starts],” Knierim said. “I am elated with the outcome.”
Pairs experienced the biggest change of the four figure skating disciplines since the Olympics with none of the top five teams from the Winter Games competing internationally this fall. Russian pairs, traditionally the best in the world as a group, are ineligible due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including gold medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t skate in the Grand Prix Series.
The Grand Prix Final continues Friday with the pairs’ free skate, rhythm dance and women’s short program, all live on Peacock.
OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.
What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.
Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.
Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?
Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.
What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?
Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!
How often do you get to see your family?
Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.
I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?
Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.
There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?
Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.
To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations?
Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”
I just want to read you a few tweets…
I know we frequently talk about how dominant Katie Ledecky is but I somehow still feel like we don’t talk about her enough.
You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?
Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.
Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?
Ledecky: Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.
Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.
Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.
2016 Rio Olympics.
Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.
Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?
Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.
You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?
Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.
I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.
Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?
Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.
Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without …
Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.
Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?
Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.
Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?