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

Javier Fernandez (left) of Spain and Nathan Chen of the U.S. (Getty Images)

Javier Fernandez (left) of Spain and Nathan Chen of the U.S. (Getty Images)

A year ago, when he was mapping out how he'd 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 to his short program and a second triple axel ito 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 19.

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.

Does Fernández, 26 next month, try to shrink that difference by adding a fourth quad to his free skate as Hanyu, 22, has done this season?

Fernández knows there are limits -- even if the 17-year-old Chen has defied that notion in his first season on the senior international circuit.

"Many of the other skaters competing against Nathan, we're not 17. Our body has changed," Fernández said via telephone from his training base in Toronto.

"It's harder for us to put more quads in a program," he continued. "We have to play to our personal tactics. I have to consider if I want to do it (add a quad) or just try to skate clean."

It seems clear that Chen, for all his jumping wizardry, cannot get the component scores to beat Fernández and Hanyu if all three deliver clean performances, although Chen's components have gone up by 9.5 points from his first Grand Prix event -- where he finished second to Fernández -- to his win over Hanyu at last month's Four Continents Championships in South Korea.

No less an authority than Russia's Tatiana Tarasova, 70, who has coached Olympic champions in men's singles, pairs and dance, is mystified by the judges' feelings about Chen's components.

In her comments for Russian television at December's Grand Prix Final, where Chen's four-quad and winning free skate made him the talk of the sport, Tarasova labeled the discussion by "some very unprofessional people" concerning gaps in Chen's skating quality, presentation and skating skills as "just stupid."

"He has his way of presenting and performing choreography, and his way is very strong and deserves the highest components. He presents a new way of figure skating development," she said, to which her fellow commentator added, "Into the 22nd century."

Another venerable Russian coach, Alexei Mishin, has similar views about the groundbreaking nature of Chen's skating.

"I call him a new page in the book of world figure skating history," Mishin said via telephone from St. Petersburg, Russia.

The 76-year-old coach was speaking both of Chen's landmark five-quad free skates -- which he did first at this year's U.S. championships and again at Four Continents -- and Chen's remarkable recent quad consistency. Beginning with the Grand Prix Final free skate, Chen has received full base value on 18 straight quads, with positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) on 17 and a negative of just -0.51 on the other.

Mishin, renowned for his ability as a jump coach, sees fundamentals of the technique he teaches as part of the reason for Chen's consistency.

"You should have a very tight pulling-in position, start to make the initial rotation during the takeoff and rotate very quickly," Mishin said.

"In the future, skaters will keep the maximum speed of rotation during all the flight time, as this boy (Chen) is doing. Yuzuru Hanyu is also a very great jumper, also with a very tight position in the air, but his initial (rotation) movement is more delayed."

Rashid Kadyrkaev, a friend of Mishin, noticed when Chen was a junior skater doing triples consistently well that he already had mastered such key pieces of Mishin's technical ideas. Kadyrkaev, a Soviet world team member in pairs who coaches in Ashburn, Virginia, also finds another reason for Chen's steady success on the quads.

"He is not only technically outstanding but mentally a rock," Kadyrkaev said via telephone.

That was evident at Four Continents, where Chen built a six-point lead over the redoubtable Hanyu in the short program but had to perform immediately after the wildly popular Japanese star in the free skate. That meant if Hanyu skated well, a roar of applause would be ringing in Chen's ears.

Hanyu skated wonderfully, improvising a fourth successful quad after doubling the jump during his first attempt. The crowd, knowing Hanyu's attachment to the character Winnie the Pooh, responded by covering the ice with plush bears, leaving Chen to wait out a long delay while the surface was cleared.

Once he was able to take the ice, Chen nailed his five quads and fought through some minor mistakes at the end for a free skate good enough to get the overall win ahead of the reigning Olympic champion by 3.75 points.

"In that situation, it's a little bit of a mind game, making sure I am able to stay focused no matter what the distractions may be -- a million Pooh bears or someone doing something unnecessary or abnormal," Chen said in a telephone conversation last week.

"Trying to really ignore those things is something I've prepared myself for before every single event. So if things come up, they don't even bother me anymore."

Chen has also been able to deal with expectations no one thought would become so enormous by this season. After all, his 2016 season ended prematurely, with a third-place finish at the U.S. championships because of a hip injury that also knocked him out of both the junior and senior world championships. The injury also required surgery and, for Chen, to spend several months off the ice.

Not since Mishin student Evgeni Plushenko -- and rarely before -- has a men's skater made an impact like Chen's in his first full senior season. Plushenko went from a 14-year-old world junior champion in 1997 to a 15-year-old senior world bronze medalist in 1998. He went on to win an Olympic gold, two Olympic silvers and three world titles.

"As a junior, Nathan was already in the eyes of everybody, but usually skaters coming from juniors need two or three years to adjust to the senior level," Fernández said, then added with a laugh, "If you come with that many quads, it makes everything more easy."

Chen followed the dazzling free skate at the Grand Prix Final, where he was second overall to Hanyu, with two skates of otherworldly brilliance at the U.S. championships and then two strong skates to win the title at Four Continents, his first senior international championship competition.

"This is something I've always been striving for," Chen said. "My mom always put positive pressure on me to do my best, no matter how small or big the event.

"Having people supporting me brings pressure and a bit of nervous energy. It also lifts me up and gives me motivation to get through the event and show to them, yes, I have these things (the quads), and I want to prove I can do them.

"When it comes down to the program at the event, it's just forgetting about all the pressure and the support and focusing on doing the best performance I can. That sounds totally clichéd, but, honestly, it's the truth."

Truth be told, Chen did not go to Four Continents intending to repeat the five-quad program of the U.S. championships. Concerned about fatigue during the longest and most intense season of his career, he planned to do three, figuring that should be enough to win a medal. Chen also thought that reducing the number of quads could give him time in the program to show a more artistic style.

"I learned from last year that I didn't want to over push myself, especially leading into worlds," Chen said. "But I was in really good shape coming out of nationals. When the time came, I figured it would be okay to do the five."

"He got ambitious again and decided to try to win," said Chen's coach, Rafael Arutunian.

Can Chen win worlds or get a medal, the latter being the goal he and Arutunian have set before seeing what happens during the competition? Chen is, after all, not a machine. Ice is slippery. And, even if the talented American is flawless in Helsinki, there are those pesky component scores.

"At worlds, we will have a group of good athletes -- Hanyu, (Japan's) Shoma Uno, (China's) Boyang Jin, Fernández -- all diamonds of nearly the same price," Mishin said. "Chen is in that group."

Fernández thinks Chen "has the potential to win, but so do many other skaters."

Chen notes that both the Grand Prix Final and Four Continents were both "strange competitions, where not everyone skated as clean as I have seen them skate."

"I'm going to worlds preparing myself that they will all skate clean, amazing programs," Chen continued. "So then I will know how much I need to push myself to top that."

Could that be a sixth quadruple jump, of a fifth different type? 

"I'm sure he is able to do a quad loop," Mishin said.

"He did it already (in practice)," Arutunian said.

For Arutunian, the progress Chen has made this season is less surprising when viewed over the length of the plan the coach and skater are working with.

"Your preparation is four years before the Olympics," Arutunian said. "Every single competition before that is another step forward, a step to get to your goal -- to win the Olympic Games.

"As you go along, you put on the table what you have to win or be on the podium or be top six," he continued. "The top six guys always are competitive at the Olympics, and anyone can win. That's how you calculate.

"Now you have weapons more than anyone else. Four quads, five quads, six quads. Where do you want to use them?"

Perhaps it will be easier for Chen to enter the Olympic season as a contender instead of as the world champion. After all, in the seven Olympics since the end of compulsory figures in 1990 made outcomes less predictable, Evan Lysacek of the U.S. is the only reigning men's world champion to have won the Olympics, accomplishing that feat during the 2009-10 season.

"For some people, maybe silver or bronze is better because it makes them try harder," Arutunian said. "Not for Nathan. I need to stop him most of the time."

Chen chuckled when the coach's words were relayed to him.

"I always like to push myself," he said. "I think that's pretty evident with the five quads."

In the process, Chen -- as well as Hanyu, Jin and Vincent Zhou of the U.S., who performed three quads and two triple axels cleanly in the free skate to win the 2017 world junior title -- is pushing the sport to where it has never been athletically.

"This is the logic of any human business," Mishin said. "Progress is not possible to stop."

And, as Javier Fernández noted, hard to keep up with.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)