Philip Hersh

Nathan Chen
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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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Q&A with Nathan Chen before he attempts to win his third world championship title

Nathan Chen
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When Nathan Chen enrolled at Yale in the fall of 2018, his California-based coach, Rafael Arutunian, was concerned about Chen being able to keep up his level of skating with essentially a phone and FaceTime coaching arrangement.

Since then, the Yale sophomore has won all nine of his competitions, including a world title, two Grand Prix Final titles and a third and fourth straight U.S. title. His performances to beat two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at last season’s World Championships and at this season’s Grand Prix Final were both simply brilliant and also the best of Chen’s career.

With the 2020 World Championships beginning March 18, NBCSports.com/figure-skating recently spoke via telephone with Chen, 20, about Arutunian’s acceptance of the coast-to-coast separation, the rivalry with Hanyu, and Chen’s plans for next season.

Rafael was very excited after visiting you at Yale in February. What was it like having him there for the first time?

I thought he was able to see what my whole training program looked like and what my life looked like. We walked around campus, and he really enjoyed it.

Arutunuan and Nathan Chen
Rafael Arutunian and Nathan Chen Yale’s Ingalls Rink last month. (Courtesy Rafael Arutunian)

Did you get a sense that it made him appreciate why you chose to go to Yale, so far from him?

I think he started to understand that when we were walking around, just from looking at architecture and spending time with a couple of other students. He recognizes and appreciates that finally I have an opportunity to broaden my reach outside of skating by not being in a traditional ice arena atmosphere with the same people every day. He has a new perspective on me being here.

Note: After the four-day visit, Arutunian said to me in a text: “Lots of smart kids and beautiful buildings. I totally agree it was the right decision [for Chen to be at Yale]. He made a good choice.”

After the free skate at nationals, Raf told me he was astonished you were able to skate so well after being literally knocked flat by the flu until about 10 days before the competition. Did it astonish you?

I was happy I was able to do that, but I have been in situations where I have been ether sick or injured, and I have had to compete. So, I have kind of learned how to do that. But, yeah, I was pleasantly surprised with how things went. [Getting through] the programs was definitely easier than I thought. Stamina was definitely an issue going into that competition. Halfway through the program, I wasn’t as gassed as I thought I would be. I was pretty proud I was able to get through it without generally dying.

From what Yuzuru Hanyu said at the Grand Prix Final, it seems everything in his mind now is geared to trying to beat you. Do you think you are in his head a little bit?

Having this sort of competition is definitely making him approach programs this season differently than if I were not there to compete against him. Without him, my approach would be different too, and it would influence some of the decisions I make in in my programs. It goes both ways.

So, you are both in each other’s head?

I think saying we’re in each other’s head has a negative connotation, and I don’t believe we are influencing each other negatively. I think it’s definitely positive. We are both trying to figure out the best way to approach a competition so we can come out on top. If you consider it from that perspective, yeah, I think we’re both in each other’s head.

In a good way?

We’re not like throwing bad voodoo out to mess with psyches. We’re pushing each other. At least that’s how I picture it, and I would imagine he is pretty similar.

Will you spend any time training in California before worlds?

I won’t, unfortunately. We have spring break [March 6-23] before Worlds, but that’s too tight of a timeline, so I don’t think I will go back.

Let’s talk about whether you will stay at Yale next year. Apparently one factor is that as you have moved into upper-level courses, the time and scheduling demands have become more complicated. Is that correct?

That’s a big part of it.

After three semesters at Yale, has it surprised you have been able to do these two difficult things so well?

I am surprised. I had doubts coming here that I was going to maintain skating and school. For reference, I was doing all home school for two or three years [before the 2018 Olympic season], and I took a gap year for the Games. Home school is an opportunity to continue studying, but the learning environment is completely different than it is here – the level of study, how rigorous it is. I wasn’t sure what that was going to be like.

As the semesters have gone on, I learned how to study a little better, and I think that learning how to study is a huge part of succeeding in school. And it kind of goes the same way with skating – learning how to prepare.

One thing I didn’t realize before getting here was how in selection of classes you can make it a very easy semester or an incredibly hard semester. I think I overloaded my plate too much with hard classes the first couple semesters. [This year], I got into a class that meets only once a week, and that incredibly eases my schedule. All these things I should have considered, you don’t know about until you are there.

What are your plans for the next off-season and summer?

I’ll be doing shows, but the priority will be going back to California and maximizing the time I have with Raf and determining whether or not I’m coming back [to Yale] or taking a gap year. I might take an online class through Yale over the summer just so when I come back for the next semester or future semesters I won’t have to have quite as hectic of a work load.

Is it still possible you will return for your junior year this fall?

I’m 50-50 on it right now.

Will what happens at worlds affect your decision?

The results of worlds, and the results of the school year plus considering what classes I will have to take the following year all will definitely influence me. [Chen is majoring in statistics and data science.] The classes will be pretty tough, and I’ll have to max out the science credits, which means a lot of labs. And I don’t know how well I’ll be able to manage that. I have to figure this out for myself.

Back to skating for a final question. Do you think at Worlds you will need more than the four free skate quadruple jumps you did at nationals?

Probably. I saw online that Yuzu is planning a quad Axel. I really hope that he does, because it is going to be amazing to see. If he does, and I want to have a fighting chance, I’ll have to up the quad count. But if by the time I get to Worlds, my quads are all over the place – which could totally happen – then it’s more logical to do four and skate very, very clean. Assuming everything is to plan, I assume I’ll do something similar to what I did at the Final [five quads].

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

MORE: Coach Rudy Galindo draws on previous experience

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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