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Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony again at world championships

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Nathan Chen has had little down time at Yale University since the beginning of his first-year classes in late summer.

The reigning figure skating world champion had embarked in August on a journey unlike almost any other in the history of the sport. Not only was he trying to blend both full-time college studies and competitive skating, as other champions had successfully done in the past, he was trying to do it with limited input from a coach who was 3,000 miles away.

His skating practice schedule includes a one-hour round trip to a nearby rink. His courses this semester include calculus, statistics, abnormal psychology and Listening to Music.

But it’s typical of Chen that when he had a break from classes last week, he used it to take on another challenge.

He went into an empty common room at one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges and sat down at a piano that was, to be polite, in need of some TLC.

Chen, 19, later said the exercise wasn’t just for fun and relaxation but rather to see if he remembered how to play the instrument, on which he had achieved a solid level of proficiency nine years ago but played little since.

Judging from the video snippets Chen posted on Instagram, the answer is yes.

In one, he performed part of the free skate music his U.S. teammate and good friend, Mariah Bell, is using this season. In another, he poked fun at his own skills and gave praise to singer-instrumentalists after trying to accompany himself on a Rainbow Kitten Surprise song called “Mr. Redudant.”

His comment overlaying the video: “MAD PROPS TO PEOPLE WHO SING + PLAY PIANO BC BOI IS IT HARD.”

Nathan Chen playing the piano.

Truth be told, what Chen is doing also deserves mad props.

Not only is he undefeated this season going into this week’s world championships in Saitama, Japan, Chen has been able to more than hold his own academically at Yale, saying there were “some As and Bs” on his first-semester transcript.

And, as with the piano, he hasn’t forgotten the important basic skating techniques that have helped him land one landmark quadruple jump after another.

“I’m proud he has still kept the skills he has been worked on all these years,” Rafael Arutunian, his coach, told me in a telephone interview last week. “His jumps are stable and strong.”

Still, Chen knows a shaky effort at worlds will raise doubts about the current path he has chosen.

That helps explain why, despite all the times Chen has expressed pleasure over his first-year experience at Yale, he is committed only to being non-committal about his plans beyond this academic year.

It seems likely he will request an academic leave for all or part of the next Olympic season, 2021-22, but Arutunian hopes Chen can take some time off before then.

Yale regulations allow undergraduates “in good academic standing” to take two terms of leave, which do not have to be consecutive. Yale also allows some students to take a third term of leave if they are doing accelerated classwork (graduation in six or seven semesters of work rather than the usual eight), and Chen mentioned on a media teleconference last week he intends to take some courses this summer.

“He’s a special guy, and I think he needs special treatment (from Yale),” Arutunian said. “I would like to see that happen.”

After Chen’s dazzling performances to win a third straight U.S. title in late January, Arutunian emphasized how important it had been that he and the skater were able to spend nearly three weeks together at the coach’s Southern California training base during Yale’s Christmas break.

They could have had another pre-competition stretch together last week, with Yale on spring break. But the coach thought a week was too short and would have made the sessions too intense. Chen also was suffering from a cold and decided to stay in New Haven before leaving Saturday and going directly to Japan, cutting down his travel.

“I didn’t want to see him right before a competition because he would try too hard to impress me and get tired,” Arutunian said. “We had enough time before nationals that he could work hard the first week and go easier after that.”

Arutunian said he has even limited the number of video chat coaching conversations the two have to avoid taking time Chen could be using for practice or school work. The coach is impressed with how well Chen has handled remaining one of the world’s best skaters and studying at one of the world’s best universities.

“For how he is doing in studies at Yale and in practicing most of the time by himself, he’s doing excellent,” Arutunian said. “He can’t just go home and rest after practice.”

But Arutunian recalled, almost wistfully, the way Chen had looked late last August at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp (an evaluation session), which came after they had spent several weeks of concentrated training time together.

“He was doing so well it was amazing,” Arutunian said. “Everyone was shocked to see how well he was doing all the elements.”

The most encouraging thing about Chen’s skating this season is it has gotten better, with increased technical demands, as the season has gone on.

In his first individual event, October’s Skate America, his short program combination included just two triple jumps. By the next event, it was a quad-triple. Over Chen’s four competitions this season, his short program aggregate technical base value has gone from 39.96 to 41.97 to 43.05 to 47.67.

The progression has been similar in the free skate: three quads in the first two events, four in the next two, and a base value jump from 84.01 at Skate America to 94.39 at nationals.

A year ago, Chen did five free skate quads at nationals, all judged clean, and then a history-making six at the Olympics and worlds. (Nine of his 12 Olympic and worlds quads got positive Grades of Execution; the others all got full rotational credit.) But Chen said he might have been doing fewer quads now even without the extra time demands of college.

This season’s new rules have played into his tactics. Cutting 30 seconds from the men’s free skate, being able to repeat just one type of quad and having more reward for clean elements and more penalty for mistakes all encourages trying fewer quads. In the Grand Prix Final and nationals, Chen did a quad Lutz, a quad flip and two quad toes.

“Based off the way the season has been going and the rule changes, what I’ve been doing definitely is the right move,” Chen said. “Regardless of whether I was in college, I would probably follow a similar track. As of now, I’m happy with everything.”

That does not preclude Chen pulling out a fifth quad in the free skate this week. He tried a quad Salchow at his second Monday practice in Japan.

Chen has lost just one competition the past two seasons – the 2018 Olympics, in which a hot mess of a short program put him in 17th place. That he rallied to finish fifth by winning the free skate easily over eventual gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was both a consolation prize and a needed confidence boost for Chen, who also had bombed the short program in the Olympic team event.

Chen went on to win the 2018 worlds without Hanyu, who was still recovering from the foot injury that nearly undid his hopes to win a second straight Olympic gold. As he seeks a third world title, Hanyu’s health is uncertain again after another foot injury has kept him out of competition since November.

How well Chen skates at worlds will factor “to some degree” in his decision about whether to enroll at Yale for next fall. He has until August to decide.

“It depends on what my goals are in skating,” Chen said. “I can always find time to continue my education. Skating has more of an end date.”

His skating schedule after worlds is to include appearances in nine of the 13 Stars on Ice shows in April and May, and he might return to Japan for the World Team Trophy in mid-April. Both are lucrative gigs.

Chen has no reservations about his answer to the question of how well he has managed his dual obligations, especially given the immediate naysaying from some critics when he struggled competitively early in the season despite winning.

“Has it gone better than you hoped?” Chen was asked.

“Definitely,” he said. “(And) it was just an experience I didn’t want to give up on before I ever tried it.  I’m glad I gave myself the shot to attempt both.

“I’ve really, really enjoyed myself being in college, and I’m happy with the way things have been going there. Skating has been going well too, so I can’t really complain.”

Not when Nathan Chen can play the complicated score to his life well enough that it sounds like harmony in a major key.

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

MORE: How Japan built figure skating powerhouse

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

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Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.

Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.

And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.

The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.

And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.

At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.

But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.

That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.

That’s enough to leave even dedicated figure skating fans scratching their heads. And it cannot help gain fans in the United States, where interest in the sport is flagging, among the people who might stumble upon NBC’s coverage of senior worlds and wonder what happened to that Liu kid.

That raises the issue of whether national federations should have the same age eligibility rules as those the International Skating Union applies to international events. Since 2001, an athlete must be 15 by the July 1 before a season begins to compete as a senior in international championships and 13 by that date for junior events.

That question has taken on new significance because of the current iteration of the sport’s judging and scoring system (IJS), first used at Worlds (with different parameters) in 2005.

The system now has made it possible for advanced 13- and 14-year-olds, whose often pre-pubescent morphology makes it easier to do the most difficult jumps, to get enough technical points to overcome their lack of mature skating skills and presentation.

In the past, phenoms like Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan could go from winning senior national titles and medals to compete as seniors internationally before their 15th birthday. Whether that was a good or bad idea is open to a debate that the sport’s current realities has revived.

“I fully understand the concern about the confusion that the various age limit rules may create, and I fully agree that it would be much wiser to have the same rules nationally and internationally,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU’s single & pair skating committee, said in an email. “I find (it) nonsense to allow 11-year-old girls to compete in senior events and national championships.

“Unfortunately, the ISU cannot interfere in national regulations, but I definitely would support the idea of discussing the matter with the various federations concerned and try to convince them of the importance of having their champions to represent them in senior ISU Championships.”

That discussion likely won’t get far, given the feelings of national federations like Russia, Canada and the United States.

“While the ISU has rules based on age, U.S. Figure Skating does not – and will not – impede the advancement of an athlete in domestic competitions based on age,” USFS president Anne Cammett said in an email.

“U.S. Figure Skating’s position on performance continues to be based on proficiency and achievement as opposed to age categories… We will continue to follow what the organization believes is in the best interests of our skaters in their pursuit of excellence.”

Through a spokesperson, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said her federation is satisfied with the system that allows athletes to compete in senior national events before they are eligible for such events internationally.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU’s top figure skating official, said via email, “It is not so evident that federations who allow their young skaters to compete in seniors are wrong.”

Lakernik, like Bianchetti, noted the ISU has no authority to interfere in the rules of national federations.

Lakernik contested the idea that very young skaters could not win in seniors under IJS until recently, noting that Adelina Sotnikova had won the Russian Championship at age 12 and gone on five seasons later to become 2014 Olympic champion. But when Sotnikova won her country’s 2009 senior nationals, Russian women’s singles skating was struggling toward at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.

Another eminent Russian, venerable coach Alexei Mishin, said in a text message he “completely agreed” with the idea national federations should use the same age rules as the international federation.

As part of its selection process for the World Junior Championships, the Japanese Skating Federation allows the top six finishers from its junior nationals to compete in the senior event about a month later. In an email, the JSF said its records show no junior ever has won its senior national title.

Japan’s Mao Asada, an eventual three-time world senior champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, won the 2005 national silver medal at 14. Asada could not compete at senior worlds that year or the Olympics in 2006, when she would have been a gold medal contender.

“Some people have the opinion that you want the best at competition,” said Canadian coach Brian Orser. “Others think if they are going to compete as seniors, they probably should be that age at nationals. I have no opinion either way.”

In sports like gymnastics and Alpine skiing, the U.S. federations use the same age rules for senior events as its international federation. In gymnastics, it is 16 in the calendar year of a competition for women and 18 for men. In skiing, it is 16 during the calendar year, so Mikaela Shiffrin, now the sport’s leading woman at 23, was able to do her first World Cup race two days before her 16th birthday.

Track and field follows different national and international rules.

USA Track & Field has no minimum age for men in senior (or “open”) track and field championships and a minimum of 14 for women. At this year’s world championships, minimums vary by event, with the endurance events requiring an older minimum, and all athletes must have been born before 2004.

In addition to facing questions about harmonizing national and international age minimums, figure skating officials have been talking about raising the international minimums. Although a so-called “urgent” proposal to raise it to 17 for seniors did not make it to floor discussion at last summer’s biennial ISU Congress, the issue is expected to come up again in 2020.

Laura Lipetsky, who coaches Liu, has repeatedly said she and her skater are not frustrated by having her held back internationally by her birth date because they were aware of the rules in place.

But Lipetsky unsurprisingly is opposed to the age restrictions.

“Minimum age requirements shouldn’t be a factor in sending a qualified skater to either nationals or worlds. A skater should be judged strictly on her talents,” Lipetsky said in a text message.

“Many have made the argument that a minimum age should be established in order to make sure that we have mature skaters on a world stage. Unfortunately, in ice skating a person’s age does not establish their maturity level. Many girls mature at different ages.

“A 12-year-old skater can have mastered all the triple jumps for a high technical score but lack the maturity to score high in the artistry marks. In this scenario, she will probably not score high overall marks. You can take another skater who is 12 but mature for her age, (who) has all of the triple jumps and the maturity level to score high in artistry. A skater’s maturity level should not judged by an age, but by their performance.”

Coincidentally, while Liu won’t be competing at junior or senior worlds this month, she will have another turn in the spotlight for a non-sports audience this Friday, when VH1 airs its annual Trailblazer Honors.

View this post on Instagram

VH1 Trailblazer ✨ I am a trailblazer!!

A post shared by Alysa Liu (@alysaxliu) on

Liu is being recognized as an “Everyday Trailblazer” in this year’s awards, which are centered on breakthroughs in female empowerment. Other honorees include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Burke.

Pretty heady company for a 13-year-old, even if you could bet she would rather be with kids around her own age when they skate the short program Friday at junior worlds.

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

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Nathan Chen three-peats as U.S. national champion

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DETROIT – What Nathan Chen did in Sunday afternoon’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships looked like otherworldly brilliance to everyone who saw it.

“Honestly, it’s incredible,” said Jason Brown, who had a chance to watch Chen because Brown had skated before him.

And yet Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, refused to get carried away after his skater easily became the first man since Johnny Weir in 2006 to win three straight men’s national titles.

“I am not completely satisfied,” Arutunian said Sunday. “There is so much more he can do.

“He didn’t do a quad Salchow. I still want him to try a quad loop. This was a program he has executed before. You always like to improve.”

Chen was not surprised by hearing Arutunian’s comments.

“Raf is always the overachiever,” Chen said. “That’s why I am with him. Of course, there are things I can improve on.”

Results: Men’s final

What Chen did Sunday, he did extraordinarily well. His first of four flawlessly executed – and seemingly effortless – quadruple jumps, a Lutz, was so high it may have hit the radar of air traffic controllers at Detroit Metro Airport.

“That’s normal,” Arutunian said of the height Chen reached on the jump. “He is older and stronger.”

His other quads were a flip and two toe loops, one in combination with a triple toe. Chen said he made a last-minute decision to do the second toe loop instead of the Salchow.

“I just felt that maybe now wasn’t the right time for it,” Chen said.

Twenty-five of the 36 Grade of Execution marks received on his four jumping passes with quads were the maximum of +5. No man in the world has done a clean free skate with that many quads this year.

When he wasn’t jumping or setting up jumps, Chen, 19, skated with a feeling for the music, “Land of All” by Woodkid, a dynamism of expression and body position and a fluidity of movement that have added a new dimension to his skating this season.

“He has taken skating to an entirely new world,” NBC commentator Weir said during the free skate telecast.

Chen’s component scores were stunning, even given the generous nature of marking at nationals. Chen got an overall perfect 10 for both performance and interpretation of the music, with just one of the nine individual marks in each category under 10.  He also received some 10s for skating skills, transitions and composition.

“He has matured,” Arutunian said.

Chen tried one fewer quad than the history-making five he had landed cleanly in the previous two nationals. But for the third year in a row, Chen was in another universe from all the other men’s skaters in the United States.

“It’s unbelievable,’’ Brown said. “He is pushing the sport in ways that growing up, I could only dream of.”

MORE: Jason Brown’s costume drama leads to cross-continent quest

Chen won this time by a 58.21-point margin over Vincent Zhou, with Brown another 11 points back in third. Chen won last year by 40.72 and two years ago by 55.44.

The difference this year – beyond that Grades of Execution now stretch from +/- 5 instead of +/- 3 – is Chen has done it while a freshman at Yale, carrying a load of sports and school that many, including Arutunian, worried might overwhelm him.

“I am so happy that he could handle both,” Arutunian said.

The coach nevertheless said again he hopes Chen can take more time away from Yale to train with him in California, to which Chen chuckled and replied, “of course.” Arutunian thought the two weeks they spent together over the holidays were a significant part of his success at this nationals, when Chen also had a sparkling performance in the short program.

Chen trains on his own in Connecticut, both on the Yale rink and another one nearby. He and Arutunian occasionally work out technical issues via FaceTime.

“He relied on experience and quality of technique to do well this time,” Arutunian said.

It hasn’t been that way all season for Chen. While winning two Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final, his performances have been consistently flawed, far from what he likely will need to repeat as world champion in March.

Chen has said Yale professors have been very accommodating of his skating schedule, which forces him to miss classes for competitions.

“There are pros and cons (of being on his own as a skater, 3,000 miles from Arutunian),” Chen said. “No matter where I’m training, no matter who I’m training with, there will be good things and bad things about it. I’m so thankful Yale has given me the ice time for me to continue pursuing my dreams outside of school.

“Some competitions have been really good; some have been not so good. Ultimately, I feel I’m improving competition to competition. This competition gives me a lot of confidence going to the future.”

Chen noted that nationals came at a good time, with second-semester classes having started only 13 days ago and the course work yet to ramp up.  Some of his previous competitions this season were in the middle of the semester, when the academic load was heavier.

“I definitely learned a lot more about handling my schedule last semester,” Chen said.  “It’s reassuring to know I can handle the two.”

Chen knows there are times when something has to give. He is skipping February’s Four Continents Championships, even though they are taking place in Anaheim, Calif., just down the road from Arutunian’s training base in Irvine.

If Chen has to miss class time, it likely would be more valuable for him to do it for training time with his coach closer to worlds.

That is what Arutunian wants. He knows Chen can be even better than he was Sunday.

That would be something to see.

MORE: After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships, Four Continents and world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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