Rafael Arutunian

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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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Alina Zagitova pushes artistry while younger Russians focus on jumping prowess

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Russia’s Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and 2019 world champion, has been under intense scrutiny since winning in PyeongChang some 21 months ago. No doubt she will be again when she skates at NHK Trophy (this weekend, live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers).

Her last outing, at Grand Prix France, was no exception. Zagitova placed second, some 19.94 points behind 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia, her training partner at the Sambo-70 school in Moscow lead by coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Kostornaia is capable of two triple Axels in a free skate. Anna Shcherbakova is capable of two quad Lutzes in a free skate. Alexandra Trusova is capable of a quad Salchow, quad Lutz, and quad toe. She attempted four in her winning Rostelecom Cup free skate.

Talk has swirled on social media and in the press, as audiences wonder if Zagitova may experience the feeling of being pushed out by younger, more technically acute skaters. Zagitova won Olympic gold by defeating older training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva, then a nearly undefeated two-time world champion. But a year ago, Zagitova lost the European championship to another young Russian, Sofia Samodurova (coached by Alexei Mishin). Zagitova managed to bounce back to win the World title two months later.

Zagitova is not ready to admit that the wheel of fortune was turning too fast for her, however.

“I also was one of these junior skaters who did all their jumps with a hand above their heads,” she said after Grand Prix France. “I was one who did their jumps in the second half of their program, because it gave you more points. I was even the first one to land a triple Lutz, triple loop combination, also in the second half. Rules have changed since, what can I do?”

At the same time, she genuinely acknowledged her teammates’ prowess.

“I think that those girls who do quads are great,” she said enthusiastically, though Zagitova nonetheless had tears in her eyes when she understood that she had lost to Kostornaia.

The technical disruption that ladies’ skating has undergone these few last years caused this pattern, but it won’t last forever, according to Daniil Gleikhengauz. He choreographs for both Zagitova and Kostornaia at the school in Moscow.

“When Alina was younger, no one thought of quads for ladies,” he explained. “She learned the most difficult jumps of that time. Then, we pushed to have our pupils land them in the second half of their programs [because it was worth more points under the rules]. Then, we asked ourselves ‘what’s next?’ We thought that maybe quads would be coming up, and we taught quads to the newcomers. They learned harder jumps.

“Alina is very smart,” Gleikhengauz continued. “She understands that she is 17 years old, not 11 or 12. The current generation will learn quads and land them for several years. At this point in time, ladies’ skating is at the top of technique, so it’s a little bit tough to maintain yourself many years, as technique is going so fast. Tomorrow will be different. Quads will be there for 10 to 15 years. So those girls who are mastering quads [now] will have many more years.”

The technical route is not the only path to winning, however.

“There are two ways to succeed: either you skate like Carolina Kostner, who takes your heart and each move is perfect. The other way is to do what young girls are doing,” Kostornaia said after her win in Grenoble.

Zagitova understands that as well.

“Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being,” Zagitova acknowledged. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like three kilos, to decrease the risk of injuries.

“If it’s really necessary for me to land a quad, I may train for landing one. But it will be difficult. It won’t be a quad Salchow or a quad toe, though, as they wouldn’t be the easiest for me.”

Zagitova thought she may try to train a quad Lutz first, like another young teammate of hers is landing. Shcherbakova’s free skate this season includes two quad Lutzes, and she won both Skate America and Cup of China.

“Learning a quad is a question of mentality,” Gleikhengauz said. “When you are 11 or 13, you’re falling every day, as you are learning triple jumps. Then you master them. You start learning triple Axels and quads – and again you fall, fall, fall. And then you master them and you don’t fall anymore. What happens next is that you forget about falling and how to fall. When you have to learn triple Axel or quad later on, then you’re really scared about it and it may become dangerous for you.”

Zagitova, though, may be on the “Kostner route” for the time being.

“For now, I can’t skate like Carolina Kostner yet,” Zagitova said while laughing, “but I’m working at it.”

Kostner, the 2014 Sochi Olympic bronze medalist, won her first European title at age 20. She is known for her artistic qualities on the ice.

This season, Zagitova chose a Flamenco piece, Yasmin Levy’s “Me Voy,” for her short program. Her free skate is a medley of music she called “Cleopatra” which includes pieces from Peter Gabriel’s “The Feeling Begins,” Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack, and Khatir Hicham’s “Ramses.”

“We tried different kinds of choreography, but we felt this music was good for me,” Zagitova said. “I think it suits my style and my skating well, and I loved it right away. My short and my free programs are very different, with two different styles. Fans are telling me that I can do a lot more than ballet music. I’m glad I can show that on the ice.”

“Alina is a really beautiful skater,” Gleikhengauz said. “She is amazing. When we make a program, she always makes something bigger than a program. She always comes up with new ideas: ‘why don’t we do this?’ ‘why wouldn’t we try that?’ She is such an artist.”

Eventually, Zagitova wants to work her way through a list of various different styles.

“We work on them, thanks to the many specialists who come teach us,” she said. “We dance a lot on the floor. We have jazz dance or twist right now. That helps us develop our programs, and gives us huge possibilities to develop ourselves.”

No one knows how long Zagitova will take to master her most difficult jumps. But as for now, she still is the reigning Olympic and world champion, and she intends for that to last.

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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Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

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GRENOBLE, France – Nathan Chen landed four quadruple jumps in his free skate to win Grand Prix France this past weekend: a Lutz, two toes and a Salchow. Two weeks earlier, he had landed three en route to a third consecutive Skate America victory: a flip, a toe and a Salchow.

As early as 2017, however, at the world championships in Helsinki, Chen had produced a six-quad free skate. He had landed “only” four clean then. But that day, April 1, 2017, he had made the sport’s free skates shift from mainly triple jumps with a few quads to mainly quads with a few triples.

He subsequently delivered six-quad free skates at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and at Worlds in Milan a few weeks later. In both occasions he won the free skate phase, leading him to his first world crown.

Women are starting to get into the quad game, too. Chen is not yet ready to repeat his feat from back then, though.

“With the new rules [voted by the ISU Congress in June 2018], you would need to do all five different quads [all except the Axel] if you wanted to land six quads into one program. This would be very high risk,” he said after Grand Prix France in Grenoble. Under the new rules, only one type of quad can be done twice in a program.

Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Chen from California while his pupil is a sophomore at Yale University, clearly stated that rules were by no means a limit.

“Rules can’t make you stop improving if you want to. The goal everybody has is to improve the sport,” he said.

The two-time Olympic champion, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, delivered similar program content in Kelowna at Skate Canada one week earlier, as he landed four quads as well: a loop, a Salchow, and two toes.

Both Chen and Arutunyan highly praised Hanyu in Grenoble.

“I’m a big fan of Yuzuru Hanyu,” Arutunian said. “I heard about the big score he got at Skate Canada. He is such an iconic skater.”

“He’s Yuzu,” Chen added. “He’s won two Olympic gold medals, and he just put great results and got super-scores right at the start of the season, with high quality quads. He is a role model in figure skating.”

Four quads, incorporating three different kinds, seem to be the current highest standard in men’s skating under the new rules.

“Going for six quads is not worth the risk,” Chen continued. “Four is obviously less than six, but nailing four high-quality quads is more important nowadays.

“Which doesn’t imply that I’m not going for six quads!” he added mischievously.

Chen’s free program for this season nonetheless suggests that it potentially has room for an additional quad. At Skate America, the two-time world champion opened his program with a triple Lutz, triple toe combination. In Grenoble, he placed a triple Lutz, double toe combination right after his opening quad Lutz. Both could potentially turn either into a quad Lutz or into a quad flip combination, depending on which jump he elects to open his program with.

When asked about such a possibility, Chen excluded the idea that it would turn into a quad Lutz, triple toe combination, however: “No, this won’t be a quad-double!” he said with a laugh.

Chen also stated that he was not landing the quad loop at the moment (although some 2017 footage indicates that he did land it). This means that five quad-programs certainly remain within reach for the time being.

“Of course, we’re working on getting six quads again, and also a quad Axel, and may be quintuples one day,” Arutunian said. “What Nathan is doing in practice now is not what you see in competition.”

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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