Finally, hearts are pumping: There is a real figure skating competition coming up. Who knows how many more there will be?
Nathan Chen hopes to become a five-time U.S. figure skating championship next week, in a bubble at a Las Vegas rink. He’s competed sparsely this season, winning Skate America with 299.15 points, far short of his world record score of 335.30, but October is never the time to set the bar its highest. And it’s a butt-ugly year for any athlete to achieve anything.
That time for ringing achievements is usually reserved for the world championships in March. Last year, it was cancelled just as the COVID-19 pandemic got off to its horrific start. And Chen doesn’t really even know if worlds will take place in Stockholm, Sweden this coming March.
“I would love to have worlds but before every competition, I am expecting that they are just going to cancel it,” he said on a zoom call Wednesday. “Bottom line, I would love to go to worlds. If they have it, I would love to be there.”
But Chen is rightly concerned about going to Stockholm less than three months away. During the first COVID wave, Sweden did not follow the World Health Organization’s directives, and opted for the herd immunity, concept, only limiting crowd sizes to 50 and generally telling folk to stay at home if they felt ill.
With cases rising rapidly, only on Dec. 18 did Sweden adopt some of the WHO directives: they had loosened restrictions in October. Currently, their death toll approaches 9,000 and 258 people have died in the past five days. Its death rate is higher than those of their Nordic neighbours, sometimes as much as by ten times.
“I am just a little concerned about the virus and the safety of the athletes,” Chen said. “I don’t know what the fans are going to look like. I am hoping they retain a bubble.
“But if that is the case, as long as everyone is safe and it is a responsibly held event, I would love to be there,” he said. “But as of now, I cannot really say. We will wait and hear and decide then.”
For now, the U.S. nationals loom, and Chen promises few changes to the programs he showed at Skate America. He has made some small modifications to bump up the choreography sections, but his program is just too loaded to squeeze out more room for the feelies.
At Skate America, in his free skate, Chen landed a quad flip – triple toe loop, a quad toe loop – Euler – triple flip series, a quad toe loop – triple loop and left us ready for more with a triple loop and a triple Lutz. He singled an Axel and doubled a Salchow.
Don’t expect a quad loop out of Chen. His success rate on it lately has been “quite low.” If he can increase that success rate, he might think about it. But with the event next week, probably not.
Also forget about the quad Axel. “Based on the points system, it is really not that much of a value gain over a triple Axel,” Chen said. “It is enough to set you aside, but based on the value of the other quads, I don’t think it is something that should be entirely focused on.”
Also risk of injury makes it hardly “the smartest thing to do,” Chen said. Especially at this time of the season.
Across the waters, his arch-rival Yuzuru Hanyu, has already completed his nationals, (his fifth nationals win, but first in five years.) Considering that he has been training by himself at home in Japan, rather than Toronto, and that he hadn’t competed since February, Hanyu was brilliant, winning by 34.55 points over Shoma Uno, with a final point tally of 319.36 points. In his free, he landed a quad loop, a quad Salchow and two quad toe loops, one in combination.
Skating to the ethereal “Heaven and Earth,” in aqua tunic and bell sleeves that stretch forever, Hanyu revealed that he came close to quitting because he was so frustrated last year. Even this year, working so much by himself, he has said that it gave him “more anxieties and worries to deal with.” There are, he said, so many things we need to fight against in the world right now. He was just getting tired of fighting, he told reporters.
He’s been getting advice from afar, and has taken strength from the encouragement he has received from others. And there is something to be said for the satisfaction that comes through having slogged through the tough times.
The world championship would be a vital match between the two, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2022. Chen watched Hanyu and was impressed. “Training in isolation is pretty tough, so I give him a lot of credit for still being able to stay on top of his game,” he said. “I think he is looking quite strong. It was a nice break to be able to watch him skate, and Shoma as well. It has been a long time since I have been able to see them skate live. It was nice to see that.”
Those Olympics are what keep Chen motivated during a “strange season,” he said.
It’s what is “on the back of everyone’s mind,” he said. “The Olympics is coming up in about a year or so and of course that is the main motivator for most athletes, I would assume.”
Chen is also thankful that he is able to train right now. “A lot of people are focused on things that are much more real than skating is,” he said. “So …I am able to not have other things directly impact me while I am on the ice, to be able to focus solely on the ice and just really appreciate the fact that I have training time, healthy training mates and people that are being responsible and staying safe.”
He says he doesn’t have much to complain about. Other people are struggling more than he and other elite athletes. “We get this opportunity to make the most of it and enjoy the fact that we have this opportunity,” he said.
The Grand Prix season featured only four instead of six Grand Prix, and the Grand Prix Final was nixed. Chen was disappointed about that. And competing against Hanyu is “such a unique feeling and experience,” Chen said. “I always look forward to it.”
And he is grateful and happy to compete next week.