US star Nathan Chen balances life, figure skating glory

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              FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, file photo, Nathan Chen performs during the men's short program at Skate America, in Everett, Wash. U.S. figure skater Chen will be trying to defend his Grand Prix Final title in Vancouver, British Colombia, beginning Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
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Nathan Chen mostly goes unnoticed when he strolls through the picturesque campus of Yale, and the few times he can recall being recognized happened months ago during his freshman orientation.

That’s because just about everyone who attends the prestigious Ivy League school is exceptional in some way, whether they happen to be brilliant at science, a mathematical whiz or handy with words.

Or in Chen’s case, a world-class athlete.

“It’s actually been really low key,” Chen said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from Vancouver, British Colombia, where he will defend his Grand Prix Final title beginning Thursday night.

“What I’ve done is pretty cool,” Chen said, “but everyone at Yale has done something cool.”

Maybe so. But just look at what the 19-year-old from Salt Lake City has accomplished over the past year: Chen followed his Grand Prix Final triumph with a national championship, then helped the U.S. win team bronze at the Pyeongchang Olympics. After a disappointing short program in the individual competition, he proceeded to land five clean quads in his free skate to vault to a fifth-place finish.

Then he headed to Italy, where he won both the short and free programs while becoming only the second skater behind two-time and reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu to eclipse 320 total points.

Chen was the youngest world champion since Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko in 2001, and was the first American to win the world championship since Evan Lysacek accomplished the feat in 2009. His margin of victory over Japan’s Shoma Uno was among the highest in history.

After that kind of grueling schedule, nobody would have faulted Chen for taking a break. In fact, many skaters targeting the 2022 Beijing Games decided to take this year off.

But all along, Chen knew he wanted to start college in the fall — he spent most of his downtime last season writing entrance essays. Ultimately he decided to move all the way across country, from his longtime coach Rafael Arutyunyan and his training base in California to the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut, where he began knocking out prerequisite coursework while keeping up with his skating.

“It’s been a lot to try to figure out,” Chen explained, “but as each competition goes, I’ve been better able to balance the two. I’m still learning. I’m still not doing as well as I want with either of them, figure skating or school.”

Well, the figure skating part has still been exceptional.

Chen began his Grand Prix season at Skate America in Everett, Washington, where he easily won both segments to defend his title. Then he rebounded from a shaky short program that included a fall on his quad flip to win the Internationaux de France — his fifth consecutive Grand Prix gold medal.

Now, Chen will try to defend another title at the Grand Prix Final.

Hanyu, his biggest rival, announced last week he was withdrawing following an injury to his right leg. That means Uno, the Olympic silver medalist, figures to give Chen the toughest competition in a field that also includes Russia’s Sergei Voronov and the Czech Republic’s Michal Brezina.

“It’s going to be a good competition regardless if Hanyu is here,” Chen said. “He’s a big aspect in figure skating, but I just have to focus on myself. I can only control what I can control.”

Whether that happens to be schoolwork or figure skating.

The Grand Prix Final begins with the men’s and women’s short programs Thursday night, and the men’s free skate caps a Friday night schedule that also includes the rhythm dance and pairs short program. The women’s free skate, free dance and pairs free skate are Saturday.

Here are some of the favorites in the other competitions:

WOMEN: Russia’s Alina Zagitova, who outdueled compatriot Evgenia Medvedeva at the Winter Games, is the clear favorite after sweeping both segments in each of her two Grand Prix assignments. Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara are her biggest challengers in the six-woman field, which includes three Japanese skaters and three Russian skaters — and nobody from the United States.

ICE DANCE: Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have retired, and world champs Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron did not qualify because of an injury. That means world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue of the U.S. are favored, though the two Russian teams of Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov will provide strong competition.

PAIRS: Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot took an indefinite break after taking Olympic gold and the world championship. Russia’s Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are considered the favorites after winning silver at the world championships, while Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are trying to build off their first Grand Prix victory at Skate Canada.