This time, skating's scoring system adds up to excitement

This time, skating's scoring system adds up to excitement

HELSINKI, Finland - This is the 13th World Championships in which figure skating has used the oft-criticized scoring system developed in reaction to the pairs judging controversy at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Every so often, the system's seemingly mathematical madness makes perfect sense in accomplishing one of its primary goals: keeping more than a few skaters in the running for a medal after the short program at a championship event.

That is exactly what happened here Wednesday in a ladies' short program of such overall quality that the top seven finishers received just one negative Grade of Execution (GOE) on their combined 49 elements -- and that was just a blip of -0.3 for Russia's Anna Pogorilaya.

It is what allowed 2016 world silver medalist Ashley Wagner of the United States to say she wasn't in too big a hole after finishing seventh with a clean -- if admittedly -- slow and cautious performance.

Seventh consigns a skater to the penultimate group in the order for the free skate final. In the pre-Salt Lake past, that position screamed, "Also-Ran."

"Today is not at all about placement," Wagner said. "My score has set me up for a great long program. I know I am in fighting distance."

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Nathan Chen as Nureyev? It's really not a surprise

Nathan Chen as Nureyev?  It's really not a surprise

Search the internet for still pictures of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev dancing Le Corsaire.

Then compare your findings to screenshots from the first 30 seconds of Nathan Chen skating his short program to music from that ballet.

In several instances -- especially in the time before Chen begins jumping -- the parallels between the skater and the dancer are striking. There are moments when Chen's arm carriage, known as port de bras in ballet, and the positions of his feet are virtually homage to Nureyev's performance.

That is not surprising, given that Chen and his choreographer-coach, Marina Zoueva, put together the program after spending hours looking at YouTube video of Nureyev in Le Corsaire, a mid-19th century ballet to the music of Adolphe Adam.

"We basically modeled it right after Nureyev and tried to make [it] as similar as possible," Chen said.

That Chen can reflect Nureyev seems surprising until you talk with people who taught him and danced with him during the 6 1/2 years he studied at Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City. It surprises them that some figure skating judges apparently find it hard to recognize the artistic ability, musicality and dance skills they saw in Chen soon after he enrolled at the school as a 7-year-old.

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Nathan Chen complicates Fernandez' quest for world skate three-peat

Nathan Chen complicates Fernandez' quest for world skate three-peat

A year ago, when he was mapping out how to best prepare for a successful defense of his world title, Javier Fernández knew he had to add more high-scoring jumps to his programs.

At the 2015 Grand Prix Final, the Spaniard saw the best free skate of his career to that point still position him well behind Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu in the standings. So, Fernández attacked that gap by adding a second quadruple jump into his short program and a second triple axel into his free skate.

The plan worked, especially after Hanyu made several mistakes in his free skate at the 2016 World Championships. Fernández increased his element base value by five points, won the free skate by a whopping 32, and secured his second straight world title by another 19 points.

Now, as Fernández seeks a three-peat at this year's world championships -- which begin March 29 in Helsinki, Finland -- he finds himself facing a similar strategic dilemma against Nathan Chen of the United States. Chen's five quads in the free skate give him a base value that is nearly 12 points higher than the most the Spaniard has ever tallied.

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Skating rings around his rivals, Nathan Chen's rise to the sport's elite has been meteoric

Skating rings around his rivals, Nathan Chen's rise to the sport's elite has been meteoric

Perfect symbolic fit:  Five Olympic rings.  Five Nathan Chen free skate quads.  And Chen doing them on the rink where a year from now he will be a strong contender for an Olympic gold medal.

The improbability that I could now confidently make such a bold statement about Chen is, in keeping with the numerical theme, the first of five takeaways from what he did Friday and Sunday in winning the Four Continents Championships in Gangneung, South Korea.

1.  Few U.S. singles skaters have had as meteoric a rise as Nathan Chen.

Last December 8, a day before the free skate at the Grand Prix Final, the 17-year-old from Salt Lake City was a prodigiously talented young skater with no striking international success at the senior level.

Barely three months later, he has become the most striking figure skater in the world, with a real chance to win the title in his debut at the senior World Championships beginning March 28 in Helsinki, Finland.

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Could rush to judgment hurt U.S. women's chances for three Olympic figure skating spots?

Could rush to judgment hurt U.S. women's chances for three Olympic figure skating spots?

Earlier this season, U.S. Figure Skating changed its senior world team selection rules to deny a guaranteed place for the reigning national champion.

The change was made, according to a USFS document approved in December, “to select the athletes who will have the best chance for success at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships to win the maximum number of medals and future berths for the World and Olympic Team the following season.”

It was made just in case the winner at nationals was a fluke (or, more politely, a surprise), someone whose past international record gave no strong indication of success at the World Championships.

Someone like Karen Chen.

Her performances in both programs at last month’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City were undeniably brilliant – by far the best of her career.

Her performances in this week’s Four Continents Championships on the 2018 Olympic rink in Gangneung, South Korea, were undeniably dismal:  12th in the short program, with a fall and a watered-down combination; 10th in Saturday’s free skate, when she omitted the planned opening combination, did an invalid element and had four sloppy jumping passes (out of seven).

Overall, with a 12th place that matched her finish at last year’s Four Continents, Chen looked like the skater who had been consistently mediocre this season and last – with the exception of the 2017 nationals.

That should get USFS officials thinking of a future change in its world team selection rules so the results of Four Continents can be taken into consideration.  After all, it will be more than two months from the end of nationals to the start of worlds.

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