Finals week at Yale officially begins next Thursday, Dec. 13, but Nathan Chen has a different kind of test this coming weekend in Vancouver: the Grand Prix Final, where he is defending champion.
The 19-year-old American – and current Yale freshman – comes in as a slight favorite in a field that’s lacking two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who withdrew last week due to a right ankle injury he sustained in Russia at a competition in November.
But there is no clear passing grade for Chen, the reigning world champion, who has Olympic silver medalist and Hanyu’s Japanese compatriot Shoma Uno to contend with. While it’s Hanyu who has the best score of the season, Chen’s season best of 280.57 (Skate America) is just three points ahead of Uno (277.25, Skate Canada).
In a post-Olympic season of big changes in figure skating, few have been as stark as Chen’s, who moved from a training base in Southern California with his family and coach Rafael Arutunian to go off on his own and enroll at Yale, where he FaceTimes in Arutunian for practice sessions where he’s often the lone skater on the ice – and certainly the only elite skater.
“It’s incredible to think of the things that Nathan is tackling right now,” Ben Agosto, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist in ice dance and a current Olympic Channel commentator, told TeamUSA.org. “I was watching him at Skate America and I had a pretty good feeling he’s setting up for a jump and in the back of his head he’s saying, ‘I have a midterm coming up.’ It’s such a different head space to be in. He’s now exposed to these incredible new ideas and people who are talking about exciting and important things. I think it’s great he’s taking advantage of that opportunity while he can. I think he’s doing a great job at maintaining a certain level of competitiveness.”
While Chen and Uno headline the men’s field, two American teams are set for the ice dance competition, including the odds-on favorites Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2018 world silver medalists. They’re joined by fellow Team USA members Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who also joined Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal this season to train with famed coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
While Hubbell and Donohue will look for their first Grand Prix Final medal in their fourth straight appearance at the event, Hawayek and Baker will be outside contenders to make the podium in a field that is lacking Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron (the team missed one of its two grand prix assignments due to an injured back for Cizeron), as well as big-name American duos like Maia and Alex Shibutani (taking the season off) and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (Chock’s ankle injury).
The Final is the culmination of the six-event Grand Prix Series and features the top six skaters in the world in each discipline, who have qualified through a points-based system.
“Madi and Zach are looking at this competition potentially as theirs to lose,” noted Agosto, a three-time Grand Prix Final medalist himself alongside partner Tanith Belbin White. “In the last year or so I really have seen an evolution in their mental strength; I think they’re getting much more comfortable in their setting in Montreal. That machine is starting to rumble and they are optimizing one another. They’ve been more relaxed and I’ve started to see them work through those nerves in a much more constructive way when they’re on the ice in competition.”
Agosto was addressing the slippery habit that Hubbell and Donohue had formed of wilting under pressure in the free dance in the recent past. They were third at the world championships in 2017 after the short dance only to fall to ninth overall when – well into a chilling free dance – Donohue caught the edge of his skate on the ice during a twizzle sequence and went down.
And at the Olympics in February of this year the team sat in third after the short before dropping to fourth and missing the podium.
Now, Agosto feels, all of that appears to be behind them.
“They are much more capable now of knowing when to push and when to hold back and when to play it safe,” Agosto explained. “I think they are on the right path. This will be an exciting experiment for them, a milestone maybe. I think we’re going to see them skate how we know they do every day but do so on competitive ice.”
Hubbell and Donohue’s chief rival this weekend will be the team of Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, the Russians who – like the Americans – won both their grand prix events this fall. But it is Hubbell and Donohue who had a training block built into their season having not competed since Skate Canada – in late October.
It was a period of time that could work to Hubbell and Donohue’s advantage, as the team discussed going back to Montreal to further work on their rhythm dance (formerly known as the short dance) and the often-used “Romeo and Juliet” in their free dance, which many said in the early season was made anew with the team’s interpretation.
For Chen, however, there has been no such break. After winning the season-opening grand prix, Skate America, in mid-October, he returned to New Haven, Connecticut, to continue his first semester at Yale, where he revealed he doesn’t have to share a dorm room, but also that he likes the cafeteria food and is coached via FaceTime by Arutunian.
Chen did, however, spend more face-to-face and on-ice time with his coach in the lead-up to his second grand prix, last month, working together in Moscow before traveling to Grenoble for the Internationaux de France.
While Hubbell and Donohue have unearthed a classic in “Romeo and Juliet,” Chen continues to grow and change his artistic approach, skating to a jazz tune in “Caravan” for the short and a stirring free skate in “Land of All.”
It’s famed choreographer and six-time world medalist ice dancer for Canada Shae-Lynn Bourne who was the architect of Chen’s short, while Dubreuil and Sam Chouinard helped to craft his free.
“I told (Shae) that I needed something completely different from the long program, something that was lighter and happier,” Chen told the figure skating podcast Ice Talk at Skate America. “I was even thinking of something along the lines of hip hop. She came up with the idea for ‘Caravan,’ and I (think) she pulled the best out of me for it.”
Chen will look to come out of the gates strong in the short program, where he struggled in France, placing third in that segment before coming back to win. It’s Uno, however, who will look to clean up his free skate, having put out scattered performances at both Skate Canada and NHK Trophy this year in that segment.
Of Chen, Agosto said this: “At this moment, he’s a bit of a wild card. He’s such a talented skater and a great technician; he’s never one that you can count out. It’ll make for an exciting Grand Prix Final. But at this stage, [with his training setup], you’re not quite sure what he’s going to put out there.”
It will be a weekend of discovery for Hawayek and Baker, as well, though in a different way. They are making their debut at the event, having won the NHK Trophy title (coming back from a five-point deficit after the rhythm dance) before placing fourth in a stacked field at Grand Prix France.
“This season they have great material and they look like they’re growing as artists and athletes,” noted Agosto. “They’re taking advantage of that coaching change – with them in Montreal, too – and you can really see the fruits of that labor coming together. They’re not going to feel very much pressure. They’re absolutely capable of a medal if they can put everything together.”
Can all five Americans grab medals this coming weekend? We’ll have to sit back and find out.
Nick McCarvel is a freelance writer and video host based in New York City. He covered the 2016 Olympic Games for TeamUSA.org in Rio, and his work has also appeared in USA TODAY and The New York Times among other publications.