Yuzuru Hanyu

Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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Before the cancellation of the world figure skating championships due to coronavirus, audiences were anticipating a head-to-head battle between two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen against two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu

Three Russian teenagers — and training partners — were likely to finish in some order atop the women’s podium. The hot spot of ice dance today, Montreal, was to play host to the championships, with four-time French world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France going for title number five. 

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, just off a sixth Four Continents crown, were favorites to become three-time world champions, but young Russians Aleksandra Boikovi and Dmitrii Kozlovskii looked strong to challenge them. And what about the world championships debut of U.S. pair Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who arguably captured the top moment of the national championships in January? 

With or without the world championships, the 2019-20 season has come to a close. Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the season. 

MORE: Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

Men’s 

For the second season in a row, Chen successfully completed a double: full-time studies at Yale University, combined with a near-full slate of competitions. He remains undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, with wins at Skate America, Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. His only seeming concession to scheduling was skipping the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, Korea in early February.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said early this season. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

The shining moment of his 2019/2020 campaign came in December at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where he landed five quadruple jumps — two in combination with triple jumps — in a spectacular free skate that earned 224.92 points, a world record. His total for the event, 335.30, is also a record, and he defeated two-time Olympic champion Hanyu by nearly 44 points. 

Artistically, the highlight of the Chen’s free skate to Elton John’s “Rocketman” is a 30-second hip-hop sequence at the end of the routine. 

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate in Torino. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Hampered early in the season by a concussion suffered in an August car accident, Jason Brown hit his high note at Four Continents, where he skated two career-best programs to win silver behind Hanyu. His free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to music from Schindler’s List, was breathtaking in Seoul.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Balancing skating with full-time studies isn’t doable when there are no available ice surfaces within an easy drive. Vincent Zhou couldn’t find the ice time he needed at Brown University. He withdrew from the Grand Prix Series and all but stopped skating after a few weeks, returning to the sport in full force around Christmas, under new coaches Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell in Toronto. He rallied to perform two clean programs and place fourth at nationals — his lowest finish since his 2016 senior debut — but made the Worlds team as the reigning Worlds bronze medalist.

MORE: Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Women’s 

Russia’s “three A’s” — Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova — combined to win every major international senior event on the 2019-20 calendar. Shcherbakova and Trusova both have quads, but Kostornaia, the Grand Prix Final and European champion, outshone her compatriots by combining elegance and musicality with a consistent triple Axel.

Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, made her long-awaited junior international debut, adding a quadruple Lutz to her programs and becoming the first woman to land a triple Axel and a quad in the same routine, doing it at the Lake Placid JGP in August. She won her second U.S. crown in January, and then capped her season with a bronze medal behind two Russians at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships early last month. 

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu told Phil Hersh of NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell had a fine season, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit and creating one of the signature moments of the U.S. Championships with a stirring, near-perfect free skate to “Hallelujah.”

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said on a teleconference the day worlds were cancelled. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

U.S. bronze medalist Bradie Tennell can also celebrate her best campaign. The 2018 U.S. champion qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and broke more new ground in Seoul last month where two career-high programs earned her a bronze medal at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

“I feel like I was able to relax and skate the way that I do every day,” Tennell said at a press conference in Seoul. “That’s kind of been my goal not only this year but also last year. I feel like I never quite achieved it last year. But this year throughout each competition I’ve been getting closer and closer, and at this competition I was able to really achieve that.”

Following a long road back to the sport that involved treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Gracie Gold earned a standing ovation at the U.S. Championships. She ultimately finished 12th after an emotional free skate to “She Used to be Mine,” but told reporters she would continue training for next season.

“I think I’ve earned that,” Gold said.

MORE: Gold recounts literally and figuratively running out of gas

Ice dance 

2019-20 was truly Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ season. The couple, who moved to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon last season, created a mesmerizing “Egyptian Snake Dance” program, won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and defeated longtime rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to take their second U.S. title, some five years after they first won the crown. Two weeks later, they won a second straight Four Continents title, defeating Hubbell and Donohue and Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

With Papadakis and Cizeron showing some cracks in their armor — the French duo placed second at the European Championships, their first loss since the 2018 Olympics — a world title seemed to be within Chock and Bates’ grasp. 

“This has been the best season of our careers, no doubt about that, and a big part of that is our program [“Egyptian Snake Dance”] and the way we performed it,” Bates said. “Also just the improvements we made to our skating, generally, since moving to Montreal have started to be recognized and rewarded.”

The French, who train alongside Chock and Bates, Hubbell and Donohue and many other teams in Montreal, may be glad to bid the 2019-20 season farewell. Their programs, especially their free dance to a spoken word poem, were not nearly as praised as their past efforts. After Europeans, a stressed Papadakis spoke to reporters about her mental fatigue, and the couple took a two-week break from training. Now, they have a long off-season to recoup and plan new programs.

Hubbell and Donohue, too, had a few ups-and-downs. The skaters and their coaches, Lauzon, Dubreuil and Romain Haguenauer, re-worked music edits and sections of choreography in their Star is Born free dance, hoping for a peak performance in Montreal and a third consecutive world medal. Now, the two-time U.S. champions will have a long off-season to create new programs.

The season ended on a truly somber note, with the loss of Chris Reed, a three-time Olympic ice dancer for Japan who died of a sudden cardiac event at age 30 in March. Fellow skaters paid tribute over social media for the Michigan-born Reed, who won 10 Japanese titles over his career. 

Pairs 

Chris Knieirm, winner of an Olympic team bronze medal and three U.S. Championships with his wife, Alexa, announced his retirement shortly after the couple withdrew following the short program at Four Continents. 

The Knierims, the only U.S. pair to execute a quadruple twist in competition, capped their career in January, at the U.S. Championship in Greensboro. Their final complete competition was highlighted by a clean, emotional performance to the romantic ballad “At Last,” which gave them a seven-point lead over Calalang and Johnson, and, ultimately, their third U.S. title

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said at the time. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also announced a split, and Scimeca-Knierim and Frazier plan to for a new pair and compete next season

The shakeup will add to the likely shuffling of U.S. pair rankings next season. U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, and two weeks later placed a solid fourth at Four Continents. Lacking an international resume, they were controversially left off the world team in favor of 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed fourth in Greensboro. They had placed ninth at the 2019 Worlds, earning a second quota spot for the U.S. in the discipline. 

These two pairs, along with 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and perhaps, a few improving teams, will compete for supremacy. This, partnered with the new Scimeca-Knierim/Frazier partnership should lead to something to watch for in the upcoming season.

Other notable aspects of the season: 

By the middle of September, it already was clear the season would feature a jump revolution in women’s skating. Yet no one could have foreseen the speed at which it occurred and how far it went.

With statistics courtesy of skatingscores.com, this illustrates what happened:

Until 2018, just one junior or senior woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been credited with landing a quadruple jump in a significant national or international competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix Final). From the 2017-18 season until the start of this season, there were 21 quad attempts by three skaters (Shcherbakova, Trusova, Yelizabet Tursynbaeva) in significant international competitions, with 13 getting full rotational credit and eight judged clean (positive or neutral grade of execution).

This season, seven women were listed for 42 quad attempts in significant international competitions, with four — Shcherbakova, Trusova, Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu — getting credit for at least one clean quad and 25 of the 42 judged clean.

Trusova landed three clean quads in a single free skate and did three different types cleanly during the season — Lutz, flip and toe loop (plus a fourth, the Salchow, at the Japan Open, which Skating Scores does not list among its “major,” or significant, events because of its limited field). Shcherbakova did two clean quad Lutzes in a single free skate.

There was a similar great leap forward on triple Axels.

Until this season, only eight women had been credited with landing one in a significant international competition. Four of those eight had done it in the pre-IJS and pre-replay era.

This season, the triple Axel club got three new members: Liu*, Kostornaia and Young You. Two previous members, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Rika Kihira, did more. The five had an aggregate 23 judged clean.

And all that was without the senior worlds.

(*Liu was credited with landing a triple Axel at the 2018 Asian Open, when she competed in the advance novice division.)

A bit of history

2020 also marked the 10-year anniversary of two notable Olympic moments from Vancouver 2010: Yuna Kim won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold and Evan Lysacek won the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

MORE: In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

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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Who is Japan’s greatest Olympian?

Kaori Icho
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Japan, host of the Tokyo Olympics next year, is best known for its gymnasts, wrestlers, judokas and figure skaters. At Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018, it broke national records for total medals at a single Games. A look at six of its most decorated Olympians in history …

Yuzuru Hanyu
Figure Skating
Two Olympic gold medals

Largely recognized as the greatest figure skater in history (other athletes on this list can make the same claim for their events). Hanyu, a 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, became the first repeat men’s singles figure skating champion since Dick Button in 1952. The 25-year-old from Sendai rewrote the record book for highest scores (since surpassed by American Nathan Chen) with an unmatched combination of athleticism and artistry. His fans camp outside arenas — even for lower-level events in North America — dress in his costumes and shower the ice with Winnie the Poohs, his favorite animated character.

Kaori Icho
Wrestling
Four Olympic gold medals

In Rio, Icho became the first woman to win individual gold medals in four Summer Olympics. The men to do it: Michael PhelpsCarl LewisAl Oerter, Ben Ainslie and Paul Elvstrom. Icho once held a 13-year win streak and owns 10 world championships. She has been somewhat of a mystery to Japanese fans, seeking privacy and living for a time with her sister in Canada and skipping a world championships during her peak years. Icho’s Olympic career is likely over after another Japanese wrestler qualified for the Tokyo Games in her weight division last year.

Sawao Kato
Gymnastics
Eight Olympic gold medals

Owns the most Olympic men’s gymnastics titles and the most gold medals for any Japanese Olympian. The 5-foot-3 Kato was a pillar of the Japanese dynasty in the 1960s and ’70s, when the nation won five straight Olympic team titles. He earned two golds and one silver in the all-around in that span,

Kosuke Kitajima
Swimming
Four Olympic gold medals

The greatest breaststroker in history. Kitajima swept the 100m and 200m events at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics among seven total medals in four Olympic appearances. So famous in Japan, he moved to Los Angeles to escape the public eye. In retirement, Kitajima has worked in Japanese media: he covered the 2018 U.S. Swimming Championships in California and took American star Chase Kalisz out for golf for another broadcast piece.

Tadahiro Nomura
Judo
Three Olympic gold medals

The only judoka with three Olympic titles. Nomura won the extra lightweight (60kg) division in 1996, 2000 and 2004. His father coached a 1984 Olympic champion judoka. His uncle won an Olympic judo title in 1972. Nomura gained extra visibility at home given judo was founded in Japan. The Japanese are far and away the most successful judo nation by Olympic medals (84 total, 39 gold).

Kohei Uchimura
Gymnastics
Two Olympic all-around titles

King Kohei won every Olympic and world all-around title from 2009-16, including becoming the first man since Kato to repeat as Olympic all-around gold medalist. Similar to Simone Biles‘ dominance, there was a stretch where peers went into competitions vying for, at best, second place. Uchimura, the son of gymnasts, grew up in his parents’ gym and began competing at age 6. Since winning the Rio Olympic all-around by a razor-thin .099, he has struggled with injuries, putting him in doubt to make the Tokyo Games.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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

Nathan Chen
AP
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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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