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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.”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

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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MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

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.

Vincent Zhou put Ivy League classes on hold to return to figure skating

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Vincent Zhou weathered a turbulent autumn that had him questioning his future as a figure skater. Juggling freshman classes at Brown University and hard-to-find rink time proved too much.

He took two months off the ice and four months without proper training to complete that first semester. Then he took a break from classes (which will probably extend through the 2022 Olympics), moved to Toronto in late December and began working with a new coach.

Zhou would normally be favored to join Nathan Chen on the podium at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week in Greensboro, N.C. He took silver last year before earning bronze behind Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu at the world championships.

But now, after a stressful stretch, Zhou didn’t sound like a complete joker when he said that a successful nationals would be “to just complete it and not fall more than six times.”

“It’s a disappointingly low bar for me,” he said with a laugh two weeks ago. “I just don’t know what to expect. If I had to choose on a quiz whether I was ready or not ready, I would definitely say not ready. But it’s in trying times like these, so to speak, that coal is turned into diamond.”

Zhou’s problems began early in the semester. The ice time at Brown’s rink was all reserved for hockey. So he (with his mom’s help) drove two hours to Boston to train. That was unsustainable. In late October, he announced a withdrawal before the top-level autumn Grand Prix Series.

“I didn’t even know what was going to happen for the longest time,” Zhou said. “I was just living day to day unsure of what the future was. Maybe I dramatized that too much. It’s what I felt like. It was just a rough time for me.”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

Meanwhile, Chen continued to make balancing the Ivy League and top-level sport look seamless the last two years. He’s gone undefeated without pulling out of any competitions as a statistics and date science major at Yale.

“I’ve never considered dropping [classes] or withdrawing [from events],” Chen said. “However, I have prepared myself to have pretty rough results at various competitions. I’m really swamped. I have this opportunity. I don’t want to give it up, but I’ll try to do the very best that I can. Fortunately, things have panned out for me as it’s been so far. That being said, it’s not a little walk in the park. There’s a lot of things you have to consider. There’s a lot of timing you have to consider. The classes are getting more and more difficult. They’re asking more and more of your time to study.”

As December final exams approached, Zhou had to decide whether to throw in the towel for the entire season. He had trained under Tammy Gambill in California and Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado, with some help from Mie Hamada to become one of the world’s best. That was before he moved to Rhode Island. Before he was off the ice for two months. Everything had changed.

Zhou, partially motivated to keep earning money through skating to help pay for college, decided to return for the second half of this season.

Hamada suggested a more proximate option: Toronto-based Lee Barkell, whose pupils include world medalists Gabrielle Daleman of Canada and Satoko Miyahara of Japan. Zhou met with him around Thanksgiving. He began training at the Toronto Granite Club on Dec. 23, Barkell said.

“I felt like I hadn’t skated in a lifetime,” Zhou said. “I was unsteady on my boots and not really able to do much at all. I didn’t know what to expect of myself. I was scared. Well, I still am, that I’m not going to be able to perform as I should at nationals.”

Barkell was more optimistic.

“Obviously we’re under a little bit of a time crunch,” said the 1980s Canadian pairs’ skater. “Certainly somebody at that level, and he’s obviously talented, you can get back a little bit quicker if you put your mind to it. I’ve certainly been impressed that the first day on the ice that he was definitely serious about this. Each day is getting better and better.”

If Chen is in a class of his own in jumping in the United States, an in-form Zhou is alone in the second tier.

He can land three different quadruple jumps in one program. Barkell said last week that Zhou was working on quad Salchows and quad Lutzes in isolation, but the big push was to work on his stamina for a four-minute free skate.

Three U.S. men will be sent to worlds in March. Chen has one spot. Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion ranked 11th in the world this year, is another podium favorite. Zhou is the only other man in this week’s field who has finished in the top three of a nationals or a Grand Prix.

“It’s going to be nerve-racking,” he said. “I’m going to literally be shaking in my boots.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

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.

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

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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