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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

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Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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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.

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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