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By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

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Transcendent greatness in sports is both absolute and relative.

Absolute, because anyone who sees an exceptional performance can recognize it as exceptional judged against nothing but its own merits.

Relative, because we seek to define greatness by comparison, to determine levels of it (greater? greatest?) when judged by other exceptional performances we have seen or know of, no matter how hard it is to make such comparisons across long periods of time, with the wildly different athletic parameters of different eras.

No matter which standard we use, absolute or relative, what Nathan Chen did in winning the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan was transcendent greatness.

No one other than Chen in the 123-year history of the event has done two unblemished, artistically compelling skates with the technical demands of the jump elements in his short program and free skate.

And no one else has done it while on spring break from his freshman year at Yale, one of the most academically demanding universities in the world. Or with a video chat coaching arrangement, separated by 3,000 miles from Rafael Arutunian, his skating mentor for eight years.

“I can’t put it into perspective because I do not understand how he can go to school, train all those quads and then perform so well – AND do it like it was nothing,” Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time world champion, said in a text message Saturday after watching Chen win his second straight world title. “He looked so calm and made winning Worlds look ‘easy.’”

Chen won the short and free easily and the title in a rout, by 22.45 points. He beat two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by nearly 10 points in the free skate, no matter that Hanyu gave a title-worthy performance with just one mistake.

At the press conference following the free skate, a Japanese reporter framed a question by noting Hanyu had said even two perfect programs might not have been good enough for him to win. That underscores the level of excellence the 19-year-old Chen achieved at this Worlds.

Hyperbole? Not at all. It is impossible to overstate how good Chen was.

“Incredible,” Olympic and two-time world champion Brian Boitano of the U.S. said via telephone. “And the way he did it – the composure, pacing, strength, focus. It has all fallen into place for him in a year.”

One was left to wonder if that was how Chen skated in his dreams of the ultimate performances?

“Of course,” he told me in an interview a couple hours after it was over. “That is exactly what I have trained for, everything I have wanted from skating. It’s amazing to have it actually come true.”

Chen became the first U.S. skater to win consecutive men’s singles world titles since Scott Hamilton took his last of four straight in 1984. Said Hamilton, via text: “Nathan is consistently performing at a level I never thought possible.”

As is the case when Chen is in command, his jumping was boggling. He did a quadruple Lutz and quad toeloop in combination with a triple toeloop in the short. A quad Lutz, quad flip, solo quad toe and quad toe with triple toe in the free. The quad Lutz in the free – rock solid, mile high, long run-out and seemingly effortless – got the highest Grade of Execution (4.76) (GOE) ever recorded for a jump.

It wasn’t the jumps that separated this Chen from the Chen of past seasons. It was the rest of his skating, the part evaluated in the five program component scores (PCS), the part that loosely falls under the rubrics of artistry and presentation.

At the Olympics, when Chen also won the free skate but finished fifth after a short program disaster, his PCS in the free was 9.32 below that of Hanyu, whose movements and edge work some find the most beautiful of the sport’s great champions. Saturday, Chen’s free skate PCS was just 1.04 behind Hanyu’s.

Shae-Lynn Bourne, the Canadian ice dance world champion who choreographed Chen’s short programs the past two seasons, said she has concentrated on getting him to share his personality with the audience and the judges by expressing himself and the program’s story in every movement.

“If you start from that place, people will feel something,” Bourne said. “They won’t just see it as going from element to element.

“It’s not easy to really share something of your personality. Nathan was willing to try from the first time we worked together. Each time I see him, it comes out even more.

“It’s like it is all clicking, and because it’s all clicking, he is starting to cover all the (PCS) bases, to show the whole package. It’s not just the steps but how he does the steps, the presence in each step. It’s not just doing the jumps but how he goes in and how he lands and goes out of the jumps. It’s the ride of the blade so it doesn’t feel like he is setting up for jumps: they just arrive. It’s affecting everything about how people see him and perceive him on the ice.”

Chen left Japan – and global TV audiences – with the perception of an extraordinary athlete and an eye-catching artist on ice. That left the question of whether his was the greatest overall performance in Worlds history.

“Because he put out SO much energy in both programs bringing the nuances of the music to life and simply entertaining the audiences on top of the mountain of technical difficulty, I think an argument can be made [for it being the greatest],” Browning replied. “Both programs would work well in a show environment, without all the technical content.”

No wonder Arutunian told me by telephone Saturday that this was the first time in 44 years of coaching he felt complete happiness over one of his skaters’ performances and the work he had accomplished to help the skater do it. That doesn’t mean Arutunian felt Chen has done all he can.

Coach Rafael Arutunian, left, hugs Nathan Chen after he was declared the gold medal winner during the World Figure Skating Championships at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, north of Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

“He should skate better than that,” Arutunian said. “He has no choice. The sport does not stay in one spot. I just hope Yale will give me more time to help him do that.”

Chen likely will take some semesters off to prepare for the 2022 Olympics, although he has no definite plans yet. From the time Chen matriculated at Yale in August through now, he and Arutunian have worked together face-to-face only during Christmas break, while at the U.S. Championships and while at Worlds.

There was a lot of rush-to-judgment naysaying about how such an arrangement would work when Chen bombed his first competition, the free-skate-only Japan Open in early October. It was a complete mess: he fell on three quad attempts and doubled a fourth.

“I trained for that like I would train around a summer event, and I wasn’t in the best shape to run a whole program,” Chen recalled Saturday. “That was a wake-up call that you have to train more appropriately if you want to maintain what you are doing.”

Few highly successful figure skaters in the past 50 years have tried to handle a full college academic load and compete.

Chen admitted to just “throwing myself in there and thinking, ‘Hopefully everything turns out the way I want.’ Fortunately, that was the case. Every competition, I was able to improve. I was even able to improve on what I was doing in school as well.

“Honestly, I had my doubts about whether I could pull it off. It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s thinking that it is too ambitious. Of course, there were also those who supported it, and having the support of my family and Raf played a huge role in me deciding this is what I wanted to do.”

He made steady progress after the Japan Open, enough to win two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final. But Chen was not fooled by the victories. He knew his skating level was below what it had been on the Grand Prix the past two seasons and below his own expectations.

His Japan Open doubling of an opening quad loop, a jump he had tried in only one previous competition, had led Chen to wildly attempt to compensate with way more quads than he could handle at that point. That, too, was a wakeup call.

“I played it smart after that in terms of the number of jumps I did and how I approached the beginning of the Grand Prix season,” Chen said. “Competition after competition, I built confidence.”

Suddenly, at the U.S. Championships in late January, Chen was better than ever, tossing off quads with absolute security, showing the feeling for movement that Bourne had him focus on. As his Worlds teammate Jason Brown said at nationals: “It’s unbelievable. He is pushing the sport in ways that growing up I could only dream of.”

As Chen prepared for Worlds, Hanyu was trying to recover from an ankle injury that had kept him out of competition since November. It was a replay of a year ago, when a similar injury had kept the Japanese superstar out of competition for three months leading to the Olympics, when Hanyu became the first man to win consecutive Olympic titles since Dick Button in 1948-52. A month later, he then wisely chose full recovery over trying to defend his 2017 world title.

Hanyu, 24, has not won every championship gold since his first Olympic triumph but he has been the sport’s gold standard over the ensuing five years. Arutunian unabashedly asked for Hanyu’s autograph at a Grand Prix event in Japan several seasons ago (“I still have the magazine with it,” the coach said.)  Chen said Hanyu has been his skating idol.

So, faced with Hanyu’s stature, fierce competitive will and desire to win for the home fans, Chen figured it likely would take something extra to earn another world title. He worked on a free skate pattern with a fifth quad but abandoned the idea because he couldn’t get the program as consistent as he wanted. He returned to the four-quad program from nationals.

“As soon as I made the decision, I stuck with it, and I think that boosted my confidence knowing that one, I had done it well before and two, I had trained a harder program and now I would be doing an easier one,” Chen said. “At the same time, I knew the (top) guys would all be doing as many quads, and it would come down to who skated the cleanest.”

In the short program last Thursday, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan fell on his opening quad and stumbled to sixth in the short program. And Hanyu faltered, doubling a planned quad Salchow and receiving zero points for that element.

Chen took advantage of his rivals’ errors with a clean program that earned a PCS score just .29 below Hanyu’s, with a big technical score difference. That gave him a 12.53-point lead over Hanyu and 16 over Uno going into the free skate.

The free skate draw put Hanyu right ahead of Chen. He and Arutunian prepared for what that meant: as Chen took the ice, the crowd would probably be going wild, and time would be needed to clear the surface littered with plush Winnie the Pooh toys of all sizes, the fans’ salute to Hanyu’s talisman. Chen would later joke about being happy only one side of the rink had been covered with Poohs, so he still had room to loosen up.

Hanyu’s wonky finish on his second of four quads in the free skate, also a Salchow, drew both an under-rotation call and a negative GOE, costing him some five points. Arutunian said he still thought, “We are not allowed a mistake.”

Whether that was the case became a moot point because Chen did not make one. His GOEs on the four jumping passes with quads were huge: the 4.76, a 2.04 and two of 3.39. His feeling for the dreamy, wistful music, “Land of All” by Woodkid, was striking. His blades simply flowed across the ice.

Arutunian thought this title was more meaningful than Chen’s victory a year ago because Hanyu was there, because of the consequences of the skating order, because Chen skated better than he had not only at the 2018 Worlds but also in his dazzling performances at the 2019 nationals.

Even as he noted it was a great feeling to win against “a full roster this time,” Chen sees the meaning of the second title in a more nuanced way than simply for having taken the top spot from Hanyu.

“We’re in completely different (places) in skating,” Chen said. “He has accomplished so, so much. It’s not like I’m trying to take over what he has started. I want to respect everything he has done in the sport and for the sport.

“I’m in the generation below him. He’s always been a person for me to look up to, for me to try to close the gap to be close to him. It’s a little foreign for me to be in this position. At the same time, I have put in the work to be in this position.”

Theirs is now a legitimate competitive rivalry, one rooted in mutual respect, one that can only enhance the sport leading to the 2022 Olympics. Whether both still hold the pre-eminent positions in men’s skating three years from now is impossible to predict, even if there are few apparent challengers to Chen and Hanyu on the scene. If both remain healthy, they likely will be battling each other for the gold in every major event over the upcoming three seasons.

Whatever happens in the future will not change the history, absolute or relative, of what Nathan Chen did last week. It was and forever will be a transcendent example of sporting greatness.

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

MORE: Hersh: Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 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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Nathan Chen defends world title, defeating Yuzuru Hanyu at World Championships

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Nathan Chen is now the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. He defeated two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in their first head-to-head competition since the PyeongChang Olympics on Saturday in Saitama, Japan.

Performing to “Land of All” by Woodkid, Chen landed four quadruple jumps and scored 216.02 points in the free skate, a new highest score in the world this season. His free skate, 323.02 points, was also the highest score in the world this season. The Yale University freshman extended his 10.59-point lead from the short program to 22.45 points to claim his second consecutive World gold medal. He heads back to class next week, after spending his spring break at this competition.

“It’s breathtaking to be in this arena. Thank you so much for being loud and carrying me through my program,” Chen told the Saitama crowd.

“I’m glad I was able to put out two strong skates both here and last year and I hope to be able to compete against Yuzuru further in the future,” Chen continued later in the press conference. “Every time Yuzu skates, he does something amazing and incredible and it’s just a huge honor to be able to skate with him, skate after him, especially knowing that how he sets the bar. It’s great to be able to follow that.”

Skating after Hanyu wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for Chen, he told reporters in a press conference following Thursday’s short program.

“It’s not my first time skating after him,” he said. “The raining of the Pooh bears is actually a pretty amazing sight to see. Knowing that fact, it’s something that I can prepare myself for — it’s not even something I have to prepare myself for. It’s an amazing thing. It’s amazing to see the fans love us, care for us and do all this to hypothetically make us happy. That’s such a great feeling.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu told reporters he was 100 percent, recovering from a lingering ankle injury, and he proved it. Skating at home, at the site of his first of two world titles, he was third after the short program but rallied to score 206.10 points in the free skate and 300.97 points overall. His Origin (“Art on Ice”) by Edvin Marton free skate earned him the silver medal. Afterward, his fans covered the ice with stuffed Pooh bears, as has become tradition for whenever Hanyu takes the ice.

“I was thinking about Plushenko when skating this program, because I am somehow lending it from him, and I feel that I have done what I could in this free program,” Hanyu said, referencing four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia. “But I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me. I really want to win.

“When I was going through my rehabilitation, I watched the American Nationals where Nathan Chen was performing,” Hanyu continued. “I am a really competitive person, and I want to compete with a strong opponent. I respect Nathan in this sense. Now I will have enough time until the next season, and I will try not to get injured and do my best to get stronger.”

Vincent Zhou performed to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, skating first in the final flight of skaters. He was called for two under-rotations — on his quad toe and the triple flip in his triple Lutz, Euler, triple flip combination — to score a season’s best free skate (186.99) and a season’s best total score (281.16). Zhou had his best-ever World Championships finish, claiming the bronze medal.

“I had a good Nationals and Four Continents and used the momentum to build and build, and finally, I was able to put out two great performances in the same competition, here at Worlds,” Zhou said. “I really couldn’t be happier to do what I did here.”

The last time the U.S. put two men on a World Championship podium was 1996, when Todd Eldredge won gold and Rudy Galindo claimed the bronze in Edmonton, Canada.

The third U.S. man in the field, Jason Brown, fell from second after the short program to ninth overall with a 157.34 point free skate and a total overall score of 254.15 points. He skated to a Simon & Garfunkel medley.

For Brown, skating last and closing out the competition was a little less familiar from a logistics standpoint, he said in the post-short program press conference. Once he found out the draw, he texted coaches Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson to figure out how it would work — as he shares those coaches with Hanyu.

“I feel great, it is not the performance that I had wanted, but I am so proud of the fight that I put out there, the growth that I made this year,” Brown said. “Also I am so proud at my teammates. It feels amazing to perform here, I love the Japanese crowd, I love the feeling of performing out on that ice, especially in Japan.”

Full results are here.

Shoma Uno, January’s Four Continents gold medalist, likely buckled under the immense pressure of a home World Championships. He stepped out of both of his first two quad jumps in his program, both of which were called under-rotated. He managed 178.92 points in his Moonlight Sonata free skate for a total overall score of 270.32 points. His medal streak (silver 2017-18) snapped in Saitama and he finished in fourth place.

“I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks for high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature,” Uno said. “Overall I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become mentally much stronger. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this World in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair titleAlina Zagitova wins first world title | Papadakis, Cizeron win fourth world title; Hubbell, Donohue land on podium

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships 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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Nathan Chen on his way to defending World Championship title, Jason Brown in silver medal position

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Nathan Chen set up his World Championship title defense well, sitting in first place after the short program on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

“That was fun,” his coach Rafael Arutunian told Chen in a hug as he walked off the ice.

Chen opened with a triple Axel, hung onto the landing of his quadruple Lutz, and ended with a quad toe, triple toe combination. He scored a season’s best 107.40 points to lead the field by a whopping 10.59 points.

“I’m very happy with my short program today,” Chen said in a press conference. “There’s always things that I can do better. Everything that I did, I did as best as I could. I hope to continue that into the long program.”

Chen is looking to become the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. Only six American men have won multiple World Championships. Chen is currently juggling school and skating, and his spending his spring break from Yale University at worlds.

In second place after the short program, Jason Brown also scored a season’s best 96.81. He opened with a triple flip, then a triple Axel, and a triple Lutz, triple toe combination to be in medal contention.

“I’m super pleased with today’s performance,” Brown said. “I’ve been working really hard this season building my consistency with my coaches.”

In a surprise finish, neither of Japan’s home favorites are in gold medal position after the short program — though they are within striking distance.

In his first competition since his November injury, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu scored 94.87 points and is in third place. Hanyu turned his planned quad Salchow into a double but recovered to cleanly execute his triple Axel. His quad toe, triple toe combination was also called clean.

Saitama, Japan is the site of his first World Championship title from 2014 and this year he is vying for his third world title. Ahead of the start of this season, Brown moved to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, where Hanyu also trains. Brown added in the press conference that Hanyu has pushed him daily to be a better skater, while Hanyu returned the compliment and said Brown has inspired him, too.

“I’m basically very disappointed with my short program,” Hanyu said through an interpreter during the press conference. “I made a very big mistake. I aim to reflect back and figure out what I can do better for my free skate. I will look at everything I can do to improve upon my performance.”

Hanyu also said that he hopes to continue to compete against Chen — this is their first meeting since PyeongChang.

Hanyu and countryman Shoma Uno are skating on home ice in Japan, showing off the country’s depth of skating.

Uno, meanwhile, skated to “Stairway to Heaven” and fell on his opening quad flip attempt. He pulled off a subsequent quad toe, double toe combination (though it was a planned quad-triple) and triple Axel through the remainder of the program.

Fresh off his first major victory at the Four Continents championships in February, Uno scored 91.40 points and is currently in sixth place.

Full results are here.

Last months’ bronze medalist at Four Continents, Vincent Zhou, skated two quads in the short program and scored 94.17 points. The third U.S. man in the field had a clean quad Lutz, triple toe combination but his quad Salchow was called under-rotated, something he’s struggled with all season. He is in fourth place ahead of the men’s free skate on Saturday.

Two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang earned 84.26 points in the short program and is in ninth. He finished in 19th at last year’s championships following a fourth place in PyeongChang.

Canada’s Keegan Messing, who qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, fell on his opening quad toe attempt. He didn’t add a combination to his triple Axel or triple Lutz but earned 82.38 and is in 13th place.

The rhythm dance gets underway on Thursday at 11 p.m. ET.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title | Alina Zagitova leads after ladies’ short program

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships 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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