Vincent Zhou

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Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

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For two-time defending champion Nathan Chen, the cancellation of the World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal because of the coronavirus pandemic brought disappointment and relief.

“Given how quickly this virus has spread across the world, it’s definitely the right move for the populace as a whole,” Chen said in a Wednesday teleconference after a Quebec government minister had announced the cancellation.

“Even before this decision was made, I was concerned about people around me. I was worried about Raf [his coach, Rafael Arutunian] because he has been traveling a lot. Ultimately, I’m glad they are able to stay at home, to stay where they are, to sort of prevent the spread of this virus.”

His U.S. teammate Mariah Bell, like Chen coached by Arutunian and prepared to compete in a fourth straight worlds, echoed his feelings.

“I certainly understand there are bigger things than sport,” Bell said during the teleconference.

Danielle McCann, the province’s health minister, said Wednesday afternoon that in light of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, there was too much risk to allow the event scheduled for next week at the Bell Centre arena to take place.

She cited the number of foreign visitors, the fact it would take place indoors, the thousands of people involved and the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization as reasons for the decision.

“As an athlete, we put a lot of time and effort into this, so it’s a little disappointing,” Chen said. “But there’s always worlds next year, and we will prepare for that.”

In fact, the International Skating Union said in a statement it would discuss the possibility of having the 2020 worlds later this year but that it could not occur before October. The ISU did not say if Canada would be the only country under consideration.

“We will do our due diligence to see if that is possible,” Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said Wednesday evening. “We appreciate that the ISU also is looking into it.”

Armstrong added she has had “very preliminary conversations” with management of the Bell Centre.

“They have provided us possible opportunities to consider,” she said, “but a lot more is involved than just, ‘Can we get the rink again?’”

A rescheduled World Championships would presumably have to end at least a couple weeks before the seven-week Grand Prix season, scheduled to begin Oct. 23-25 at Skate America in Las Vegas. The six “regular season” events run one week after another, with a one-week break before the Dec. 10-13 Grand Prix Final in Beijing.

Arutunian said that even if the 2020 worlds were held this autumn, he would not alter training plans designed to have his skaters peak at the more significant pre-Olympic worlds March 22-28, 2021 in Stockholm.

If U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic team selection process remains the same as it has been recently, results of the 2021 worlds would factor heavily in the two-year “body of work” considered for selection. The 2021 worlds would be one of three “Tier 1” events in those selection criteria, along with next season’s U.S. Championships and Grand Prix Final.

The results of the 2021 worlds will also significantly impact countries’ quota spots in each discipline at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

“Yes, it would be a world title, but you cannot be prepared to be your best in October and then prepared again to be in your best shape in March,” Arutunian said.

It might lead athletes to intensify summer training, which could take its toll by the end of the next winter.

“An (autumn) worlds would not be ideal,” Chen said. “We would all be ready for it and do the best we can, but it will be a very strange situation.

“I think we would take summer pretty normal because we wouldn’t want to burn ourselves out early in the season. Worlds would almost be a progression step into the next season.”

Montreal-based Marie-France Dubreuil, who has a hand in coaching 13 ice dance teams that would have competed at worlds, said via text she thought it would be “a little unlikely” to have two world championships within a few months of each other in a pre-Olympic season.

“It’s interesting,” Brian Orser, who coaches two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and 2014 U.S. Olympian Jason Brown of the U.S. in Toronto, said in a text message about the prospect of another worlds in autumn.

Asked if it would mean training harder in the summer, Orser replied, “Possibly. But we do what we must.”

Lee Barkell, who coaches reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the United States in Toronto, felt most skaters and coaches will “move forward and begin preparations for next year’s competitive season and [the Olympic season].”

“It would be difficult to wait that long to reschedule / relocate,” Barkell continued in a text message. “I think we need to be mindful of the athletes’ health and workload to ensure they are at their full potential for the 2021 World Championships.”

In a statement, the Russian Figure Skating Federation said it would “soon consider and discuss with the coaches of the Russian national team further plans for training athletes in connection with the current situation.”

Asked via email what the Russian skating federation thought about the possibility of an autumn worlds, spokesperson Olga Ermolina said, “It’s hard now to talk about plans definitively.”

This was the 16th time in the event’s 124-year history a figure skating world championships has been cancelled but only the second not caused by a World War. The 1961 championships in Prague were cancelled after a plane carrying the U.S. team and coaches and officials on their way to the event crashed in Belgium, killing all 72 people on board.

Now the event has been cancelled because of a deadly virus. Once again, sport has been subsumed by an awful reality.

“I’m disappointed not to have the opportunity to compete at worlds,” Brown said in a text message. “At the same time, I recognize this situation is way bigger than me or figure skating, and I’m 100% in support of doing everything we can to protect each other and our communities.”

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

MORE: Final women’s Alpine World Cup races canceled, spoiling Mikaela Shiffrin’s planned return

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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Q&A with defending Worlds bronze medalist Vincent Zhou

Vincent Zhou
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Vincent Zhou’s plans for this season went completely out the window.

After leaving his previous training base in Colorado Springs last August to begin studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he hoped to finish freshman year before taking a leave, the reigning world bronze medalist found himself without a place nearby to train.

The Brown rink had little available time, its ice conditions were fine for hockey but not figure skating, and the hockey coaches made it clear they didn’t like the way he dug it up with the toe pick.

After briefly enduring a brutal commute to a rink north of Boston, he put skating on hold in early October.

By December, Zhou decided it would be better to put school on hold after finishing one semester, and he moved to Toronto to train with coach Lee Barkell and choreographer Lori Nichol.

With barely two weeks of steady training before nationals, Zhou managed to place fourth, wisely choosing to limit his quadruple jumps to one in each program. It was good enough to earn one of the three 2020 U.S. world team spots based on his two-year body of work after finishing sixth at the 2018 Olympics.

With the World Championships coming up in Montreal, NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke recently by phone with Zhou about his nomadic existence since the move, his performance at nationals, his expectations for worlds and his plans after that.

When exactly did you get to Toronto?

I got there around Christmas time and spent Christmas there with my family and then started training for nationals.

Barely a month later, you went out and gave two solid, strategically smart performances. Did that surprise you a little?

Yeah [laughs]. I guess the best way to put it is I keep on surprising myself and others with results I’m able to put out. Even a few weeks before I moved to Toronto, the thought of competing at nationals seemed impossible. Even a week before nationals, I didn’t think I was going to be able to compete. Simply doing a [free] program with a quad Salchow and two triple Axels seemed impossible. I outperformed all my expectations. That’s something to be really proud of.

How many weeks before moving were you doing basically no training at all?

Over two months, zero. I stopped skating after Japan Open [Oct. 5]. I went to the gym occasionally. For the most part, my two months off was completely no skating-related stuff.

After the free skate at nationals, your first reaction seemed to be utter exhaustion. Then you allowed yourself a little celebration. Was that evidence of how far from your normal fitness level you were?

I didn’t feel more exhausted than I normally would be in competition because of adrenaline. I react differently every time. This time, I was really shocked at how well I was able to do and blown away by the audience response. I had my hands clasped behind my neck, and I was breathing heavily looking around for a few seconds. Obviously, I wasn’t in as good condition as I could have been if I had kept skating and training.

I think in competition, it’s all about the mind in the end. When I put my mind to it, I can do everything. Even if I’m not trained or conditioned to the best of my capability, I can still pull some great things off.

From where you were a week before, with doubt about competing, how did you get your mind to a place where you not only could compete but also compete well?

I relied on a belief in my ability to settle into my normal competition groove. When I got to nationals, that is what happened, fortunately. I didn’t know if I would be rusty, so to speak, wouldn’t be able to find that competition feeling and mindset again, but I was able to retain it. When I do get in that groove, it’s hard to stop me.

Are you living with your mother in Toronto?

Yes.

Do you have a place long-term or will you find a new place after this season?

I don’t know for certain what I am going to do. For now, we have a place close to the Granite Club [his training base], and everything is working out fine.

Will you stay there through worlds and then go back to California [where he grew up] for a while and then re-evaluate your living arrangements?

As long as everything goes well, I plan to just stay here until after the 2022 Olympics, after which I will go back to school. I might have the occasional visit to Colorado Springs, because that’s where my skate guy is, and I can also visit the Olympic Training Center and see my trainer and nutritionist.

How close to the bronze-medal Vincent Zhou of the 2019 Worlds do you think you can be at this Worlds?

I hope to just be there [the same level], but again, just like when I was speculating about the possible results of nationals a few weeks out, it seems like a far-off dream. I’m working hard every week, and we’re building step by step. All I can do is keep on trying to get some mileage on the necessary stuff again, keep training and building and see where I am and make the best of the situation. I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to accept the situation I’m in and deal with it.

So, were you prepared to deal with finishing, say, sixth at nationals?

I half-joked before the short program that I would score like 60 points [he got 94.82]. I was ready for anything to happen. I honestly was not confident in my ability to podium. [Editor’s note: He wound up on the lowest step, with the fourth-place pewter medal.] So even making it on the podium at nationals was a huge achievement for me.

Given what you did with so little real training, how much more confidence does that give you heading to worlds?

What I have found so far is it is a little bit of a confidence booster in training, which is always up and down. When I’m having a rough session, I try to remind myself of what I was able to do at nationals, given my condition. I’m telling myself that even if am not able to do this perfectly now, I still have it in me to pull it out at Worlds. But obviously that’s not an excuse to slack off.

With no school now, how are you filling the gap to keep your mind working?

Right now, I’m still settling into a new environment. We’re still figuring out the situation with the new place we moved into just after nationals. We’re still unpacking, buying new stuff, moving things around. Eventually, I hope to enroll in a course at University of Toronto, so I can get that credit transferred and keep the gears flowing a little and make it a tiny bit easier on me in the future.

Where were you living temporarily until after nationals?

Friends of friends provided us places. Right now, it’s still a friend of a friend’s place. It has been a condo, an apartment, a house; anything is fine.

How many times have you moved since you first got there?

Three or four. For the most part, we have kept our suitcases largely packed. We’ve only taken out the basic necessities. At first, I was starting to worry that people at the rink thought I only owned two outfits. I think we’re planning to settle down longer in our current place. We’re starting to unpack a little more.

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

MORE: Catching up with Nathan Chen before the world championships

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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10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

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.