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‘Trouble in paradise’ between Yuzuru Hanyu and Brian Orser? Coach says no

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It looked strange, to say the least.

There was Yuzuru Hanyu, the world’s most acclaimed active figure skater, waiting by himself in the Kiss and Cry to get his scores after a disappointing short program performance at last week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. At that moment in a competition, a coach is almost always at the skater’s side.

Once one of Hanyu’s coaches at his Toronto Cricket Club training base, Ghislain Briand, eventually showed up two days late, there would be a simple explanation for why Hanyu had been alone.

And yet even that would not explain why Hanyu’s primary coach, Brian Orser, had not gone to Italy for the second most important competition of the Japanese superstar’s season.

Was there a rift between the skater and the man who had coached him to two Olympic gold medals, two world titles and four Grand Prix Final titles in the seven seasons since Hanyu came to train under Orser?

“I know it looks like there is trouble in paradise, but there isn’t,” Orser said Tuesday via telephone.

“We have bumps in the relationship like any people who have worked closely with each other for a long time, but I feel pretty confident everything is fine. We were working great together this season, and he was skating very well – over 300 points at both his (regular season) Grand Prix events.”

Orser expected to talk with Hanyu about the situation Wednesday, when the skater was to return to practice at the Cricket Club after finishing a distant second Saturday to Nathan Chen of the United States in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu had 291.43 points to Chen’s 335.50.

Much to Orser’s dismay and disappointment, the reaction to his absence was, like many things in the social media era, blown far out of proportion by some in Hanyu’s adoring and occasionally verbally belligerent fan base.

“So many fans were very angry at me,” Orser said. “They were blaming me and the Cricket Club for the bad start. By my not being there, it looked like I didn’t care. I wanted to go and was ready to go, but my hands were completely tied.”

MORE: Hanyu’s worldwide fan base will follow him anywhere – literally

Each skater at the Grand Prix Final was allowed to have just one accredited coach on hand unless the coach, like Russia’s Eteri Tutberidze, had more than one skater in the event.

According to Orser, the Japanese Federation submitted Briand’s name for accreditation sometime after Hanyu won the NHK Trophy in Sapporo Nov. 23. (The deadline was Nov. 28.) Orser said he did not learn that until several days after NHK and did not know why that choice was made.

The official International Skating Union announcement of rules applying to the 2019 Grand Prix Final does not mention replacement of coaches. An ISU spokesperson said that any request for a change in a coach’s accreditation would have had to come from the national federation of the skater.

“I was put in an awkward position,” Orser said.

An email seeking comment from the Japan Skating Federation was not immediately answered.

Both Orser and Briand had been with Hanyu at NHK. Briand is considered a jump maestro, and Hanyu wanted to increase the difficulty of his jump content for the Final.

Even Orser’s absence from Turin might have been less noticeable if a missing passport had not forced Briand to return to Canada after landing in Germany for his connecting flight to Turin. (Briand told the Olympic Channel the passport had been stolen.) He got to Turin Friday.

That meant no one was with Hanyu when official practices began Wednesday and for the short program Thursday. By failing to do a combination in the short program, Hanyu fell nearly 13 points behind, an insurmountable margin unless Chen made one or two big mistakes in the free skate.

Not only did Chen do a brilliant and clean free skate, but Hanyu also made two more costly mistakes.

“Even though I wasn’t there, I was communicating with him,” Orser said. “But I’m sure Yuzu having to put himself on the ice for practices and the short program took something from his energy, both physically and mentally. It created a little extra drama.”

Hanyu said after the free skate that he had focused much of his energy on the two quadruple jumps that opened the program, a loop and Lutz, both of which he executed extremely well. It was the first time in two years – and just the second ever – he had done a quad Lutz in competition. Practicing that jump in 2017 had led to an injury that seriously compromised his preparation for the 2018 Olympics, which he won nevertheless.

“He was taking a little more technically-oriented approach to the Grand Prix Final,” Orser said of Hanyu. “He is very competitive, and he sees what Nathan is doing.”

Both did five quadruple jumps in the free skate. Hanyu had not previously attempted more than four.

Orser said he was aware of Hanyu’s intention to include the quad Lutz but was surprised to see video from Turin of Hanyu practicing a quad Axel, a jump no one has landed in competition. Hanyu fell on two Friday practice attempts of the quad Axel, and one of the falls was hard.

“I wouldn’t have suggested he try the Axel,” Orser said, “But he is on a mission with that jump.”

Orser said he expected to be with Hanyu at the Japanese Championships beginning Dec. 18.

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

MORE: Alysa Liu, attempting unprecedented jump list, takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final

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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MORE: Hanyu’s worldwide fan base will follow him anywhere — literally

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Nathan Chen on what’s next after his runaway Grand Prix Final victory

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Over three days last week at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, Nathan Chen passed with honors his first big test of this figure skating season, the usual two-part exam of short and long programs. And he did it with very high marks – his sport’s equivalent of A and A+.

This week in New Haven, Conn., Chen faces what he has found to be the progressively harder tests in the other programs of his two-part life – studying at an elite university and competing with his sport’s elite. They are the four final exams for the first semester of his sophomore year at Yale.

Then Chen returns home to California for what could be the sternest test of all – a month meeting the face-to-face expectations of Rafael Arutunian, his coach.

Arutunian’s pleasure in how brilliantly Chen performed to win a third straight Grand Prix Final gold, especially in a Saturday free skate with exceptional execution of five quadruple jumps, was fading into the past even before the coach left Italy. He wants Chen to be even better with even tougher programs.

“It’s a process, but I think we’re getting there, especially the five quads, which is difficult,” Arutunian said via telephone from Turin. “I’m looking forward to making it even harder.”

The coach said that after Chen had done the best long program of his career, a record-setting masterpiece in which the level of difficulty, the way Chen commanded it and the overall performance quality added up to an utterly remarkable four minutes on the ice.

It seems just as remarkable that Chen reached such a level nearly four months earlier than he had last season, when he won a second straight world title with skating of transcendent greatness.

Both times, Chen’s near perfect performances gave him runaway victories over the flawed skating of his formidable rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.

Chen won the 2019 world title by 22.45 points. He nearly doubled that margin at this Grand Prix Final, winning by 43.87. It was the largest gap between the top two men at the Final in the 16 years the event has used the International Judging System.

Chen’s 335.30 total points at the Grand Prix Final are a record. So are his 224.92 points in the long program, when 64 of his 108 individual Grade of Execution (GOE) marks (max: five) were fives (19) and fours (45), and his program component scores averaged 9.58 (max: 10).

Both the total and long program scores bettered his own marks from the 2019 worlds. His short program score, 110.53, was a personal best that missed Hanyu’s record by just .15.

“I am thrilled things are where they are this early,” Chen said via telephone from Turin a few hours after the event ended. “It won’t be easy to maintain, so we will see how things go.

“As the season progresses, a lot of things can change. When I get back to California, we can plan how to approach the next couple competitions. But I’m very happy this happened.”

The next two competitions are the U.S. Championships Jan. 23-26 in Greensboro, N.C. and the World Championships March 18-21 in Montreal.

The men’s event at nationals begins 12 days after the start of second semester classes at Yale. The men’s event at worlds begins 13 days after the start of the Yale spring break, which should give Chen a chance to spend more time with Arutunian before heading to Montreal. Separated from the coach by 3,000 miles and three time zones, Chen has been getting most of his instruction through occasional video chat.

“It’s going well, but I feel I can improve more with a pair of eyes on me,” Chen said.

Before athlete and coach spent two weeks in each other’s company during the Thanksgiving school break and the subsequent trip to Italy, Arutunian had given Chen a plan to get him ready for their practices together. It included work on consistency with the quad Salchow, which recently had been a balky jump for Chen, giving him the security to do more than four quads in a free skate for the first time since the 2018 worlds.

They made the decision to attempt the fifth quad after watching Hanyu nailing quad Lutzes and attempting quad Axels in practice. In the free, Hanyu would do just the second quad Lutz of his career – and it was a beauty – after opening with an excellent quad loop.

“I was doing the fifth quad in practice with the intention to potentially put it in,” Chen said. “Because of what I saw him (Hanyu) doing, I realized this was the time to try it.”

The rivalry between Chen and Hanyu has become transformational for the sport, leading each to attempt a more demanding jump level.

Can it go further? Arutunian suggested Chen could up the ante by doing a quad Lutz or quad flip in the second half bonus area of the long program or by returning to a quad loop, which he has tried (and landed cleanly) just once, in a Challenger Series event two years ago.

“I guess we will have to see what Yuzu does with the quad Axel and whatever other quads he throws in,” Chen said. “I think we’re both pushing each other to our limits as it is. It’s an exciting time for both of us.”

And their appreciation for each other is striking.

“The more we meet, the more we understand each other’s personality, where we have come from, the work we have put in,” Chen said. “We have that mutual respect.

“The bottom line is he is an incredible skater, and he has done incredible things for the sport. I have to respect that.”

The Grand Prix Final was their eighth competitive meeting. Each has won four, with Chen taking the last two. Beginning with the 2018 Olympic free skate, Chen has won five straight programs over Hanyu.

The difference in the fifth, Saturday’s free skate, was a whopping 30.92 points as Hanyu made mistakes on three straight jumping passes late in the program. Only one got a negative GOE but another was even more costly: single Axel on what was planned as a triple Axel-triple Axel sequence.

“He has everything – so much clean jumps, music sense is good,” Hanyu said of Chen at the press conference following Saturday’s free skate. “He can feel the tempo with music. He has so much experience (from) gymnastics and ballet, and I don’t have it.

“Of course, I can say I got two (Olympic) gold medals, but that’s a past thing.”

His comment about Chen’s music sense and ballet background was particularly timely after a free skate in which the three-time U.S. champion had a higher total component score than Hanyu (by 2.12 points) for the first time in any program.

“That was a surprise, even for me,” Arutunian said.

Hanyu intimated that his attention on doing both the quad Lutz and the quad loop attenuated his attention on performance. Arutunian agreed.

“Maybe doing those jumps made him feel more pressure, and he lost components,” Arutunian said. “Maybe it was because Nathan skated clean programs, he got those components. The judges appreciate clean programs.”

As well they should, because they are rare. In the past six seasons, as men have loaded programs with more and more quads, only three times has the men’s winner of a major event – Grand Prix Final, Olympics, Worlds – done two clean programs: Hanyu at the 2015 Grand Prix Final, Chen at the 2019 worlds and this 2019 Grand Prix Final.

That Chen’s have come during the two seasons since he enrolled at Yale is even more noteworthy. The overall level of his skating on the Grand Prix has been better than it was a year ago, a testament to having learned last season how to better balance and handle school and the sport. His current courses include statistics, math and anthropology.

“The skating part is basically the same as it was last year,” Chen said. “The difference is harder classes. Using experience obtained last season, I’m able to approach practices more efficiently. But harder classes mean I have to spend more time studying, and that adds a little more stress.”

Such stress likely will increase. Chen almost certainly will take a break from school before the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, but the decision on when must factor in Yale’s policies on academic advancement and academic leaves. A Yale student is eligible for two terms of leave, consecutive or non-consecutive.

“I feel I have been able to maintain what I have been working on with Raf quite well by myself,” Chen said. “That [arrangement] is working for the current situation but I feel as we get closer to the Olympic Games, I have to prioritize skating a little bit.”

After all, he wants to ace the biggest test of his sporting life.

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

MORE: Alysa Liu, attempting unprecedented jump list, takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final

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 crushes Yuzuru Hanyu for Grand Prix Final three-peat

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Nathan Chen landed five quadruple jumps to run away from Yuzuru Hanyu for his third straight Grand Prix Final title. The American furthered the claim that he is the world’s best figure skater.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, totaled 335.50 points to prevail by 43.87 over Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion. Chen had a 12.95-point lead from Friday’s short program, where Hanyu stumbled and did not record a required jumping combination.

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate knocked off Hanyu for the world’s highest program and total scores this season by more than 10 points each. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Chen hit two quad toe loops, a quad flip, quad Lutz and quad Salchow with no major errors on Saturday. It’s his first time doing five quads since he landed six at the March 2018 World Championships.

Hanyu also landed five quads but ran out of gas late. He nearly fell out of a combination, doubled the back end of another combo and popped an Axel. The Japanese megastar appeared to slip out of his final pose, putting his hand on the ice and grimacing as Winnie the Poohs rained down on his 25th birthday.

“I knew I probably couldn’t win,” Hanyu said.

Nobody has beaten Hanyu by this many points internationally since Adam Rippon at the 2009 World Junior Championships, when Rippon was 19 and Hanyu was 14.

Chen, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, has now beaten Hanyu in five straight head-to-head programs. This victory may prove more pivotal than last season’s worlds, where Hanyu was likely affected by an ankle injury and was competing for the first time in four months.

“I [can] feel, like, really lonely. [If] I can’t find motivation for the skating, it’s like, here is my motivation for the skating,” Hanyu said, gesturing to Chen to his left at a press conference. “Nathan is an icon for my practice.”

Chen repeatedly waves off a potential edge over Hanyu.

“Even now, he’s truly, like, a skating god to me,” Chen said, noting that Hanyu is “miles ahead” of him in artistry, though Chen outscored him in that department Saturday for the first time. “He’s still completely capable of doing everything that I’m doing, and even better.”

Each skater now heads to his national championships — Hanyu in Japan later this month. Chen, a Yale sophomore, goes to Greensboro, N.C., in late January, eyeing his fourth straight title, not done since Brian Boitano 32 years ago.

The Grand Prix Final ends with the free dance and women’s free skate later Saturday on NBC Sports Gold. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Grand Prix Final
Men
Gold: Nathan Chen (USA) — 335.30
Silver: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 291.43
Bronze: Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 275.63
4. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 248.83
5. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 241.44
6. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 220.04

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MORE: Alysa Liu takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final with historic jump list

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