Nathan Chen

Nathan Chen
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Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Nathan Chen was slightly surprised to learn figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go on as scheduled this autumn, albeit with localized fields.

“I actually thought that we would be doing some virtual competitions,” he said by phone Tuesday evening. “But that being said, I’m thrilled that we’re actually getting the opportunity to compete again.”

Chen, a two-time world champion undefeated since enrolling at Yale in 2018, hopes to vie for his fourth straight Skate America title in October, tying a record shared by Todd EldredgeMichelle Kwan and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

“Given that everything is right, I would love to be there,” in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25, Chen said. “But if things start to get a little bit shakier, I’ll have a little bit more questions.”

Chen already has quite a few questions.

“Obviously, how it’s going to look like,” he said. “What are the logistics of the competition? Will it continue to be held in Vegas? Or will the location be changed? Audience is also a question. Will there be an audience? What are the exact specificities with the judging system? How are the skaters going to be judged? Will it be all on site? Those are some questions and also, of course, who am I going to be competing against? Those are all questions that I would like answered, but time will tell and I’m not super concerned about those right now.”

The International Skating Union said relevant details will be shared as soon as possible by an ISU Council-appointed group along with organizers of the six Grand Prix events. The annual Grand Prix stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is in Beijing this season.

ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start, rather than the usual two, in the six-event series before the Final. Skaters will compete at the Grand Prix that makes the most sense geographically.

Chen left New Haven for his Southern California base in March, when the season-ending world championships were canceled one week before they were to start.

He couldn’t find a rink for training for two months, his longest time off ice since recovering from January 2016 hip surgery.

But, as restrictions eased, Chen and coach Rafael Arutunian began getting ice time. He trained consistently the last two months, focusing on individual elements and conditioning while not knowing if or when he would compete this autumn.

“It was kind of difficult to determine when do we start really deciding programs and when to start really training for a competition mindset,” he said.

Chen’s pre-pandemic plan was to move back to New Haven for his junior year and then take a break in the 2021-22 academic year to focus on the Olympics. But now, he’s leaning toward staying in California this fall, perhaps taking some non-core online classes. Most of Yale’s classes are expected to be held remotely.

“I’m going to take time off, I believe, because I just think that given the situation it’s going to be not really worth it to try to still attend while doing all this. I can just focus a little more on skating,” Chen said, noting he has two weeks to make a final decision. “I want to be able to return to school as a student rather than an online student.”

Chen also wants to compete this autumn in front of spectators, but he knows that’s not assured. He considered what it might be like while watching the NBA’s resumption with virtual fans and fake crowd noise.

“Having the audience to back you up during a program is huge, especially in the long program where you’re kind of gassed halfway through,” he said. “Hearing the crowd stand behind you is a big deal. You definitely feed off the energy that the crowd gives you.”

He is at peace with the abrupt end to last season, knowing that, at 21, he has many years of skating ahead. Chen is also understanding that Skate America might be his only top-level competition before January’s national championships.

“Given a normal season, absolutely, that’s not enough,” he said. “But considering the circumstances, I think this is the most that we can get. Honestly, I think we’re all totally on board with that. Literally, any competition that we’re given I think is a great opportunity.”

MORE: Carolina Kostner working her way back to skating

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Nathan Chen weighs unknown variables of next figure skating season

Nathan Chen
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Nathan Chen is a statistics and data science major at Yale.

But even his fluency in those subjects can’t help Chen much now in finding answers to questions about his future.

“Too many variables,” Chen said this week via telephone from California.

Not to mention all the complete unknowns in any equation Chen might use to help define his plans.

For the two-time defending figure skating world champion, that starts with the unknown about when he can back on the ice for the first time since the 2020 World Championships were cancelled in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And:

  • Will there be a 2020-21 figure skating season? If so, beginning when?
  • Will Yale classes this fall be virtual, as they were for the just-completed second semester of his sophomore year, meaning Chen could stay in school and stay in California to keep training daily with his coach, Rafael Arutunian, rather than being 3,000 miles apart and working together in occasional video chats?

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, Chen had been leaning toward starting a pre-2022 Olympic leave from Yale as of now. He has rented an apartment in California.

“Raf is definitely trying to influence me to stay,” Chen said. “Before I make an official statement, it’s better to wait and see how the fall semester will shape up.”

(Yale plans to announce by early July whether classes will be in-person, online or a hybrid.)

“If classes remain virtual and/or if there is no Grand Prix this fall, that might influence my decisions about school.”

Chen, 21, has won all his competitions since moving to New Haven to study in August 2018. That streak includes one world title, two Grand Prix Finals, two U.S. titles and four individual Grand Prix events.

For all that, the worlds cancellation left a critical gap in his decision-making data.

“I was using last season’s results to sort of determine what to do about school,” Chen said. “Because worlds didn’t happen, it’s harder to say.”

The ISU intends to announce by Aug. 1 whether Skate America, the Grand Prix opener, can take place as scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas. Decisions will similarly be made 12 weeks in advance of each of the other five “regular-season” Grand Prix events, which follow one week after another until a two-week break before the Grand Prix Final.

This part of the year is usually the lightest period of Chen’s annual training schedule. His time on ice would mainly have been doing tour appearances with Stars on Ice and some other shows, all of which have been cancelled.

“I’m working out trying to keep my body in shape, but I’ve been quite lazy lately,” Chen said, with a laugh. “A lot of watching movies and some playing the piano, which I did when I was younger.”

Chen estimated it would take at least two months of being back on the ice full-time to get into competitive shape for an event like Skate America, which normally comes in the trial-and-error part of the season.

“That’s a bare minimum, especially if we have to consider new programs,” he said.

Chen has done two new programs in each of his four senior international seasons and re-used just one program in the last 11 seasons. Given potential time constraints, he might be inclined to recycle something for this season.

“If we must, we must, but I’m not a huge fan of that,” Chen said.

Another unknown variable.

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

MORE: Figure skating’s latest recalculations change skaters’ formula for success

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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New math: Figure skating’s latest recalculations change skaters’ formula for success

Nathan Chen jumps at nationals during his short program
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In the ever-changing calculus of figure skating’s mathlympics, the latest recalculations change some of Nathan Chen’s formula for success.

His two highest-valued jumps, the quadruple Lutz and quad flip, no longer add up to much – or as much – of an advantage.

When Chen hit his first quad Lutz in 2016, the element had a base value of 13.6 points, the highest score for a jump anyone has landed in competition. At that time, a quad Lutz was worth 1.3 points more than a quad flip and 1.6 more than a quad loop.

By last season, when Chen won his second straight world title with brilliant quad Lutzes in the short program and free skate, the jump’s value had been reduced to 11.5, compared to 11.0 for the flip and 10.5 for the loop.

Next season, according to the scale-of-value list the International Skating Union published last week, the Lutz, flip and loop all will have a base value of 11.0. And the Lutz now will be worth just 1.5 more than the mundane quad toe loop after having been worth 3.3 more back in 2016.

In practical terms, what does it mean that the three toughest quads – but especially the Lutz and flip – have lost value over the past several seasons?

If the current values had applied last season, with everything else equal, Alena Kostornaia (no quads) would have won the Russian Championship instead of Anna Shcherbakova (two outstanding quad Lutzes in the free skate).

Going forward, it means both the growing battalion of Russian women doing the toughest quads and also Chen, who routinely lands quad Lutz and quad flip, will have lost some of their edge in scoring potential. Plus, a lower base value also means fewer points to be multiplied in the grade of execution factoring.

“These changes being ‘new’ to 2020-21 have to be interpreted as a reaction to the Russian ladies’ dominance and that of Nathan Chen, too,” said Tom Zakrajsek, a top U.S. coach, in an email.

Chen said this week by telephone that he finds the new values fair but wishes there would be a bonus for skaters like him, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Vincent Zhou of the U.S., Daniel Grassl of Italy and Alexander Samarin of Russia if they land more than one of the three hardest quads in a program.

According to skatingscores.com, Chen and Grassl are the only ones who have landed all three at least once in their career. Among men in major international competitions beginning in 2010-11, including Junior Grand Prix and Challenger Series events, 13 different skaters have landed a clean quad Lutz, six a clean quad flip, five a clean quad loop. By comparison, 93 have landed a clean quad toe loop and 42 a clean quad Salchow.

“It makes sense they are similarly valued, but there should be some extra incentive to do all the three hardest ones because it is difficult for some skaters to do some,” Chen said. “The loop is a very difficult jump for me; for others, it is quite easy.

“There are pros and cons to these changes for each athlete. I have a Lutz, and because they are reducing its value, that does negatively impact me. At the same time, I can work to get my loop consistent (he has tried just one, in 2017) and to improve the grade of execution on my jumps.”

Including the U.S. Championships, Chen has done 34 quad Lutz jumps in competition, 16 combination. Twenty-four of the 34 were judged clean, and all but two receive full base value credit.

Which quad is hardest of the “big three?”

And of the two pick jumps, the Lutz and flip, which have different takeoff edges, is one harder?

“For me, the Lutz is the most difficult jump technically, the loop the most difficult physically,” said Russian coach Oleg Vasiliev, the 1984 Olympic pairs champion, in an email.

“The difficulty of (quad flip vs. quad Lutz) depends mainly on the body of the skater,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chairman of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee, said via email. “Quad loop, if you see the statistics, is probably the most difficult quad, but this also depends mainly on the body of the skater, so we decided to give all three of those quad jumps the same value.”

Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, agrees with both his star skater and Bianchetti.

“I think the decision to give these elements the same base value is correct, because it equalizes the chances of different athletes,” Arutunian said. “But there should be special benefits for those athletes who do (more than one) correctly. That is what is really difficult.”

Two-time Olympic champion Hanyu, for instance, is a master of the loop, with 13 clean results in 21 attempts and full base value on another four. He has done just three Lutzes (two clean) but no flips.

Zakrajsek sees the evening of the base values for quad Lutz, flip and loop as a way to level the playing field.

“The (three jumps) having the same value will not only reduce the base value for the multiple quad jumpers like Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou but also sends a message to young skaters that if they can learn one of the ‘big three,’ they can have a competitive technical score and a podium future in our sport,” Zakrajsek wrote.

Almost every year since the introduction of the International Judging System in the 2003-04 season, the ISU’s technical committees for singles, pairs and ice dance have tweaked the values assigned to figure skating elements and the way they are evaluated.

Some tweaks have had a yo-yo effect: increasing the value of the most difficult jumps to encourage trying them, then decreasing the value of the same jumps (or limiting them) in an attempt to, in simplest terms, give artists more of a chance against envelope-pushing athletes.

Many of the changes have made an already complicated scoring and judging system incomprehensible to casual fans and produced decisions that are very difficult for even the most educated observers to explain.

“What bothers me about the amount of precision they are trying to get out of the system, even if in an ideal world it is the right thing to do, is there is a lot less precision than we think there is,” said skating analyst Jackie Wong of rockerskating.com.

Wong, who understands the sport’s judging intricacies as well as anyone in the world, is most concerned about the ISU’s attempts to determine exactly degrees of rotation, given the minimal evidence available (one camera angle) and the difficulty of pinpointing the precise point of takeoffs and landings, especially with the limited time allocated for technical panel reviews

“Without special instruments, finding a clear difference will be impossible,” Vasiliev said. “In my opinion, the technical committee is going in the wrong direction… and we are losing our fans, more and more.”

For next season, the ISU’s technical committee for singles and pairs has added another level of complexity to a rotation evaluation that already included “downgraded” (half a revolution short, indicated by “<<” on results sheets) and “under rotated” (between one-quarter and one-half revolution short, indicated by “<”). Both those errors affect the base value of a jump by a defined amount.

Now the technical panel is being asked to indicate jumps that are exactly one-quarter rotation short. Such jumps, to be designated “q,” on results sheets, will get full base value but bring a subjective deduction by the judging panel for grade of execution.

And the ISU is cracking down on “cheated” jumps. Some are jumps where there is “excessive rotation on the ice” before takeoff. Others, referred to as “toe Axels,” occur when the backward takeoff for a jump that uses the toe pick has a half-rotation on the ice and begins like the forward takeoff for an Axel.

The rotation decisions mean that more than ever, a call made by the technical panel can have a huge impact on the result.

“Based on the view we have had, I feel very confident about the calls we have made,” said technical specialist David Santee, who finished fourth in men’s singles at the 1980 Olympics and sixth in 1976. “If the call was close, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the skater.”

The ISU’s Bianchetti said that adding the “q” designation would make the technical panel’s work easier by not forcing it to choose between calling a jump either under rotated or fully rotated when a jump is one-quarter rotation short. Calling these “borderline cases” under rotated, he noted, would bring deductions in both base value and grade of execution that could amount to five points on high-value jumps – and the three-person technical panel often is split on which call to make.

“Adding to the job of the technical panel with only one camera angle creates not only a burden on them but… gives even more power to the technical panel to determine the results of the competition,” Zakrajsek said.

Santee’s concern about the new designation is based on how few chances he and other technical panel members may have to get used to it in lower-level, “pre-season” events because many such events already have been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s going to be a challenge getting kinks worked out before the (2021-22) Olympic season,” Santee said, noting the uncertainty over the fate of all this season’s events.

Bianchetti felt that even if more events were cancelled this season, there would be enough time for technical panels to practice with the changes before the Olympic season.

“I like that they have added the ‘q’ and the ‘toe axel’ and that they are going to account for them in GOE,” Chen said. “There will be some questionable calls over the next couple seasons because of camera angles and the speed things happen.

“We have to figure out how to make it truly fair and for everyone to get the marks they deserve.”

Bianchetti agreed that IJS is not easy to explain “to ordinary people and by TV commentators, but I don’t see any difference (in that) from the past season with the changes introduced now.”

Arutunian figured that in the end, it is up to each skater to leave no doubt about his or her superiority.

“Our sport has always been subjective, regardless of the accepted system of judging,” Arutunian said, “I don’t believe in complete objectivity in cases where people, with or without the assistance of machines, are making the decisions. A figure skater must be a head taller than the rest and just deal with it.”

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

MORE: Shoma Uno considered leaving the ice

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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