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Nathan Chen
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Nathan Chen weighs unknown variables of next figure skating season

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Nathan Chen is a statistics and data science major at Yale.

But even his fluency in those subjects can’t help Chen much now in finding answers to questions about his future.

“Too many variables,” Chen said this week via telephone from California.

Not to mention all the complete unknowns in any equation Chen might use to help define his plans.

For the two-time defending figure skating world champion, that starts with the unknown about when he can back on the ice for the first time since the 2020 World Championships were cancelled in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And:

  • Will there be a 2020-21 figure skating season? If so, beginning when?
  • Will Yale classes this fall be virtual, as they were for the just-completed second semester of his sophomore year, meaning Chen could stay in school and stay in California to keep training daily with his coach, Rafael Arutunian, rather than being 3,000 miles apart and working together in occasional video chats?

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, Chen had been leaning toward starting a pre-2022 Olympic leave from Yale as of now. He has rented an apartment in California.

“Raf is definitely trying to influence me to stay,” Chen said. “Before I make an official statement, it’s better to wait and see how the fall semester will shape up.”

(Yale plans to announce by early July whether classes will be in-person, online or a hybrid.)

“If classes remain virtual and/or if there is no Grand Prix this fall, that might influence my decisions about school.”

Chen, 21, has won all his competitions since moving to New Haven to study in August 2018. That streak includes one world title, two Grand Prix Finals, two U.S. titles and four individual Grand Prix events.

For all that, the worlds cancellation left a critical gap in his decision-making data.

“I was using last season’s results to sort of determine what to do about school,” Chen said. “Because worlds didn’t happen, it’s harder to say.”

The ISU intends to announce by Aug. 1 whether Skate America, the Grand Prix opener, can take place as scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas. Decisions will similarly be made 12 weeks in advance of each of the other five “regular-season” Grand Prix events, which follow one week after another until a two-week break before the Grand Prix Final.

This part of the year is usually the lightest period of Chen’s annual training schedule. His time on ice would mainly have been doing tour appearances with Stars on Ice and some other shows, all of which have been cancelled.

“I’m working out trying to keep my body in shape, but I’ve been quite lazy lately,” Chen said, with a laugh. “A lot of watching movies and some playing the piano, which I did when I was younger.”

Chen estimated it would take at least two months of being back on the ice full-time to get into competitive shape for an event like Skate America, which normally comes in the trial-and-error part of the season.

“That’s a bare minimum, especially if we have to consider new programs,” he said.

Chen has done two new programs in each of his four senior international seasons and re-used just one program in the last 11 seasons. Given potential time constraints, he might be inclined to recycle something for this season.

“If we must, we must, but I’m not a huge fan of that,” Chen said.

Another unknown variable.

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

MORE: Figure skating’s latest recalculations change skaters’ formula for success

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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No burnout for ‘Rocket Man’ Nathan Chen

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Last season, Nathan Chen made it all look so easy.

An undefeated Grand Prix series, including his second Grand Prix Final victory. His third U.S. title. A second world title, won with personal best scores.

All while navigating his freshman year at Yale, and earning solid grades. He hasn’t lost a full competition since PyeongChang.

As a sophomore, though, the 20-year-old figure skater expects a tougher road. Yale’s fall academic schedule isn’t quite as cooperative as last year. Chen, who opens his season at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5 and Skate America two weeks later, will miss some classes when he travels to Grenoble for Internationaux de France the first week of November.

He also expects to burn a bit more midnight oil than he did as a freshman.

“School will be a little harder, with harder classes,” Chen said while attending U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp at his hometown training rink in Irvine, Calif., in late August. “A lot of my classes last semester were pre-reqs for the major requirements. Now I’m starting to actually hit the major requirements, so that’ll be pretty challenging classes, but it should be all right. I may get tutors to help me.”

Experience taught the Statistics and Data Technology (STEM) major how to best arrange his schedule. Last year, he took Spanish as one of his electives, with the class meeting five times a week. This season, Chen said, he’s focusing on courses that meet once or twice a week.

“The first semester wasn’t ideal, but I’m arranging my schedule so that it is a little bit more manageable to some degree, while at the same time fitting in all the requirements that I need,” he said. “I will leave language for when I come back.”

Chen means after the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where he will challenge for a gold medal after placing fifth in PyeongChang (17th in the short program; first in the free skate). While he has not announced concrete plans, he has talked of the possibility of taking a sabbatical from Yale prior to Beijing.

Chen’s offseason gave him little respite from travel. His schedule included skating shows in Japan last month. There, he performed his new competitive short program, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme.”

Then Chen showed much of his new free skate at a show in Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s set to selections (including “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets”) from the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.”

Marie-France (Dubreuil), the choreographer I’m working with, was really inspired by the movie and wanted to do a piece to it,” Chen said. “If the choreographer is really inspired or feels as though they can do a good job with it, I can let them run free with it.”

Despite his busy summer, Chen thinks he’s had plenty of time training with California-based coach Rafael Arutunian.

“The way that he teaches us is not really on a day-to-day basis,” Chen said. “He kind of just gives us general ideas and we work on his concepts and stuff like that. … We just need to be on the same page.”

This season, Arutunian – who also trains U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, Canadian junior star Stephen Gogolev and many others – may make a few trips to Connecticut to sharpen Chen’s technique, especially his all-important quadruple jumps.

“We were planning on that last season, but (it) never actually ended up happening, so we’ll see what happens this year,” Chen said. “I want Raf to come, but he has a lot of skaters. He has a lot of other people that he’s committed to, so it’s kind of difficult for him to pop out. But, at the end of the day, if he can that would be great.”

MORE: Alysa Liu becomes first U.S. woman to land quad

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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Vincent Zhou to attend Brown University, details new skating situation

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World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou will attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in the fall. He’ll train in Boston, though.

He plans to live on campus, he told NBCSports.com/figure-skating, and his mother will also make the cross-country move to help him commute to practice. He could train on campus at Brown, he said, but all their ice time is taken up by hockey, and his options were limited to midnight sessions.

“My mom will be coming to help with transportation because making the hour-plus commute to training and back can and will be dangerous under fatigue and mental load,” he said.

Zhou chose Brown for its “flexible, self-directed undergrad curriculum, beautiful campus and great surroundings, and relatively short proximity to a viable training location.” He’s interested in a variety of courses, including business, economics, public policy, philosophy and psychology.

He will complete the fall semester, then take gap years or semesters until after the 2022 Olympics.

“I can return home after the fall semester ends to get some good, proper training in before the more important second half of the season starts,” Zhou said. “Subsequently, I will be able to put full focus and effort into achieving my dream of becoming 2022 Olympic champion.”

Zhou expects to get on the ice about 10 hours per week to practice, a significant reduction.

Another change will be the addition of new coach, Mie Hamada from Japan. She also coaches top Japanese skaters Satoko Miyahara and Rika Kihira.

“The search for the right coach leads almost every high-ranking skater on a national or international search — see literally every skater competing at this level,” he said of his search for the right coach. “In pursuit of a common goal, I and others seek the best guidance and support, which of course isn’t always conveniently within arm’s reach. That’s why we all have searched and moved far and wide.”

He hasn’t been specific, but Zhou still plans to work with his other coaches, too. But while at Brown, he will primarily train alone.

“I have great self-awareness, so I trust that I can figure out some things alone,” he said. “However, my coaches, including coach Hamada, will be visiting me for short periods of time when their travels and schedules permit.”

There are other models of success for skaters who train and attend Ivy League schools – two-time world champion Nathan Chen, for example.

But Zhou and Chen’s situations are different, Zhou said, because Zhou wasn’t able to select his own international competitions like Chen could as the world’s top skater. Zhou was instead assigned back-to-back Grand Prix events, in China (Nov. 8-10) and Moscow (Nov. 15-17), but he doesn’t see it as an issue.

“I will likely do a senior B [lower-level event] before my Grand Prix, and maybe a summer international soon,” he said. “Back-to-back Grand Prixs are more than I could have asked for, since separate ones would not mix well with academic catch-up and jetlag. It’s like combining errands into one trip.”

He hasn’t spoken to Chen about his schedule and ability to balance and knows “ultimately, it will be up to me to figure it out.” Zhou will be in the same boat as Karen Chen, who plans to attend Cornell in the fall.

“Under challenge is when the best rewards come out, so I’m looking forward to the growth and opportunity that is sure to come out of it all,” Zhou said. “This season will be about self-discovery.”

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