Vincent Zhou

Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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Before the cancellation of the world figure skating championships due to coronavirus, audiences were anticipating a head-to-head battle between two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen against two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu

Three Russian teenagers — and training partners — were likely to finish in some order atop the women’s podium. The hot spot of ice dance today, Montreal, was to play host to the championships, with four-time French world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France going for title number five. 

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, just off a sixth Four Continents crown, were favorites to become three-time world champions, but young Russians Aleksandra Boikovi and Dmitrii Kozlovskii looked strong to challenge them. And what about the world championships debut of U.S. pair Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who arguably captured the top moment of the national championships in January? 

With or without the world championships, the 2019-20 season has come to a close. Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the season. 

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

Men’s 

For the second season in a row, Chen successfully completed a double: full-time studies at Yale University, combined with a near-full slate of competitions. He remains undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, with wins at Skate America, Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. His only seeming concession to scheduling was skipping the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, Korea in early February.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said early this season. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

The shining moment of his 2019/2020 campaign came in December at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where he landed five quadruple jumps — two in combination with triple jumps — in a spectacular free skate that earned 224.92 points, a world record. His total for the event, 335.30, is also a record, and he defeated two-time Olympic champion Hanyu by nearly 44 points. 

Artistically, the highlight of the Chen’s free skate to Elton John’s “Rocketman” is a 30-second hip-hop sequence at the end of the routine. 

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate in Torino. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Hampered early in the season by a concussion suffered in an August car accident, Jason Brown hit his high note at Four Continents, where he skated two career-best programs to win silver behind Hanyu. His free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to music from Schindler’s List, was breathtaking in Seoul.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Balancing skating with full-time studies isn’t doable when there are no available ice surfaces within an easy drive. Vincent Zhou couldn’t find the ice time he needed at Brown University. He withdrew from the Grand Prix Series and all but stopped skating after a few weeks, returning to the sport in full force around Christmas, under new coaches Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell in Toronto. He rallied to perform two clean programs and place fourth at nationals — his lowest finish since his 2016 senior debut — but made the Worlds team as the reigning Worlds bronze medalist.

MORE: Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Women’s 

Russia’s “three A’s” — Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova — combined to win every major international senior event on the 2019-20 calendar. Shcherbakova and Trusova both have quads, but Kostornaia, the Grand Prix Final and European champion, outshone her compatriots by combining elegance and musicality with a consistent triple Axel.

Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, made her long-awaited junior international debut, adding a quadruple Lutz to her programs and becoming the first woman to land a triple Axel and a quad in the same routine, doing it at the Lake Placid JGP in August. She won her second U.S. crown in January, and then capped her season with a bronze medal behind two Russians at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships early last month. 

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu told Phil Hersh of NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell had a fine season, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit and creating one of the signature moments of the U.S. Championships with a stirring, near-perfect free skate to “Hallelujah.”

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said on a teleconference the day worlds were cancelled. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

U.S. bronze medalist Bradie Tennell can also celebrate her best campaign. The 2018 U.S. champion qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and broke more new ground in Seoul last month where two career-high programs earned her a bronze medal at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

“I feel like I was able to relax and skate the way that I do every day,” Tennell said at a press conference in Seoul. “That’s kind of been my goal not only this year but also last year. I feel like I never quite achieved it last year. But this year throughout each competition I’ve been getting closer and closer, and at this competition I was able to really achieve that.”

Following a long road back to the sport that involved treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Gracie Gold earned a standing ovation at the U.S. Championships. She ultimately finished 12th after an emotional free skate to “She Used to be Mine,” but told reporters she would continue training for next season.

“I think I’ve earned that,” Gold said.

MORE: Gold recounts literally and figuratively running out of gas

Ice dance 

2019-20 was truly Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ season. The couple, who moved to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon last season, created a mesmerizing “Egyptian Snake Dance” program, won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and defeated longtime rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to take their second U.S. title, some five years after they first won the crown. Two weeks later, they won a second straight Four Continents title, defeating Hubbell and Donohue and Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

With Papadakis and Cizeron showing some cracks in their armor — the French duo placed second at the European Championships, their first loss since the 2018 Olympics — a world title seemed to be within Chock and Bates’ grasp. 

“This has been the best season of our careers, no doubt about that, and a big part of that is our program [“Egyptian Snake Dance”] and the way we performed it,” Bates said. “Also just the improvements we made to our skating, generally, since moving to Montreal have started to be recognized and rewarded.”

The French, who train alongside Chock and Bates, Hubbell and Donohue and many other teams in Montreal, may be glad to bid the 2019-20 season farewell. Their programs, especially their free dance to a spoken word poem, were not nearly as praised as their past efforts. After Europeans, a stressed Papadakis spoke to reporters about her mental fatigue, and the couple took a two-week break from training. Now, they have a long off-season to recoup and plan new programs.

Hubbell and Donohue, too, had a few ups-and-downs. The skaters and their coaches, Lauzon, Dubreuil and Romain Haguenauer, re-worked music edits and sections of choreography in their Star is Born free dance, hoping for a peak performance in Montreal and a third consecutive world medal. Now, the two-time U.S. champions will have a long off-season to create new programs.

The season ended on a truly somber note, with the loss of Chris Reed, a three-time Olympic ice dancer for Japan who died of a sudden cardiac event at age 30 in March. Fellow skaters paid tribute over social media for the Michigan-born Reed, who won 10 Japanese titles over his career. 

Pairs 

Chris Knieirm, winner of an Olympic team bronze medal and three U.S. Championships with his wife, Alexa, announced his retirement shortly after the couple withdrew following the short program at Four Continents. 

The Knierims, the only U.S. pair to execute a quadruple twist in competition, capped their career in January, at the U.S. Championship in Greensboro. Their final complete competition was highlighted by a clean, emotional performance to the romantic ballad “At Last,” which gave them a seven-point lead over Calalang and Johnson, and, ultimately, their third U.S. title

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said at the time. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also announced a split, and Scimeca-Knierim and Frazier plan to for a new pair and compete next season

The shakeup will add to the likely shuffling of U.S. pair rankings next season. U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, and two weeks later placed a solid fourth at Four Continents. Lacking an international resume, they were controversially left off the world team in favor of 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed fourth in Greensboro. They had placed ninth at the 2019 Worlds, earning a second quota spot for the U.S. in the discipline. 

These two pairs, along with 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and perhaps, a few improving teams, will compete for supremacy. This, partnered with the new Scimeca-Knierim/Frazier partnership should lead to something to watch for in the upcoming season.

Other notable aspects of the season: 

By the middle of September, it already was clear the season would feature a jump revolution in women’s skating. Yet no one could have foreseen the speed at which it occurred and how far it went.

With statistics courtesy of skatingscores.com, this illustrates what happened:

Until 2018, just one junior or senior woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been credited with landing a quadruple jump in a significant national or international competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix Final). From the 2017-18 season until the start of this season, there were 21 quad attempts by three skaters (Shcherbakova, Trusova, Yelizabet Tursynbaeva) in significant international competitions, with 13 getting full rotational credit and eight judged clean (positive or neutral grade of execution).

This season, seven women were listed for 42 quad attempts in significant international competitions, with four — Shcherbakova, Trusova, Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu — getting credit for at least one clean quad and 25 of the 42 judged clean.

Trusova landed three clean quads in a single free skate and did three different types cleanly during the season — Lutz, flip and toe loop (plus a fourth, the Salchow, at the Japan Open, which Skating Scores does not list among its “major,” or significant, events because of its limited field). Shcherbakova did two clean quad Lutzes in a single free skate.

There was a similar great leap forward on triple Axels.

Until this season, only eight women had been credited with landing one in a significant international competition. Four of those eight had done it in the pre-IJS and pre-replay era.

This season, the triple Axel club got three new members: Liu*, Kostornaia and Young You. Two previous members, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Rika Kihira, did more. The five had an aggregate 23 judged clean.

And all that was without the senior worlds.

(*Liu was credited with landing a triple Axel at the 2018 Asian Open, when she competed in the advance novice division.)

A bit of history

2020 also marked the 10-year anniversary of two notable Olympic moments from Vancouver 2010: Yuna Kim won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold and Evan Lysacek won the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

MORE: In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

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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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

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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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