By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

Transcendent greatness in sports is both absolute and relative.

Absolute, because anyone who sees an exceptional performance can recognize it as exceptional judged against nothing but its own merits.

Relative, because we seek to define greatness by comparison, to determine levels of it (greater? greatest?) when judged by other exceptional performances we have seen or know of, no matter how hard it is to make such comparisons across long periods of time, with the wildly different athletic parameters of different eras.

No matter which standard we use, absolute or relative, what Nathan Chen did in winning the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan was transcendent greatness.


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In three-peating as U.S. champion, Nathan Chen dazzles everyone but his coach

In three-peating as U.S. champion, Nathan Chen dazzles everyone but his coach

DETROIT – What Nathan Chen did in Sunday afternoon’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships looked like otherworldly brilliance to everyone who saw it.

“Honestly, it’s incredible,” said Jason Brown, who had a chance to watch Chen because Brown had skated before him.

And yet Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, refused to get carried away after his skater easily became the first man since Johnny Weir in 2006 to win three straight men’s national titles.

“I am not completely satisfied,” Arutunian said Sunday. “There is so much more he can do.

“He didn’t do a quad Salchow. I still want him to try a quad loop. This was a program he has executed before. You always like to improve.”

Chen was not surprised by hearing Arutunian’s comments.

“Raf is always the overachiever,” Chen said. “That’s why I am with him. Of course, there are things I can improve on.”

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After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

DETROIT – For the first two seasons after Nathan Chen moved up to the senior level of international skating competition, Chen’s life revolved around his commitments to the sport.

Chen’s high school studies were done through correspondence courses, allowing him to have a schedule that prioritized his time practicing at a southern California rink with coach Rafael Arutunian. He became an immediate success internationally, and in the second senior season, he won a world title, a Grand Prix title, finished fifth in the Olympics and dazzled the world with his quadruple jump exploits.

And he also was a runaway winner in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Championships.

At 19, Chen was ready for new academic challenges.

But he still wanted to do more in skating, a sport with time and travel demands that few elite competitors have succeeded in combining with a full course load at college.

For Chen, that meant turning his life inside out.

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Comings, goings and questions as coach Rafael Arutunian looks to next season

Comings, goings and questions as coach Rafael Arutunian looks to next season

LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- In an upstairs locker room at Lakewood ICE, a skating facility with three rinks 21 miles south of Los Angeles, each dressing stall has a plate above it with the name of a figure skater or coach who regularly trains or teaches there.

On a recent afternoon early in what passes for the (brief) off-season in figure skating, odds and ends of clothing lay in the dressing stalls assigned to Team USA members Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner, Adam Rippon and Mariah Bell. Michal Březina of the Czech Republic and Romain Ponsart of France have their fair share of personal belongings in the locker room as well, as do their coaches, Rafael Arutunian and Nadia Kanaeva.

Which of those skaters will be using the stalls next season remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: there definitely will be some new ones working with the only person who has coached U.S. singles skaters to World Championships medals since 2009 - Chen's gold last month and Wagner's silver in 2016.

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Thoughts from the Hughes sisters, Olympians and Ivy League grads, on challenges and rewards Nathan Chen would have as skater and student at Yale

Thoughts from the Hughes sisters, Olympians and Ivy League grads, on challenges and rewards Nathan Chen would have as skater and student at Yale

Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic women's singles champion, was the last prominent U.S. figure skater to attend Yale.

Her younger sister, Emily, who finished seventh in singles at the 2006 Winter Olympics, went on to Harvard.

The big difference was Sarah’s competitive career had ended before she entered Yale, while Emily kept competing during her first three years at Harvard.

With 2018 men's singles world champion and Olympian Nathan Chen having been admitted to the Yale Class of 2022 and trying to decide whether he will matriculate for the 2018 fall semester, I asked Emily, 29, now a senior manager at Johnson & Johnson, for her thoughts on the demands of remaining a competitive skater while attending a university like Harvard or Yale and asked Sarah, 32, who is to graduate in May from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, for general observations on her Yale experience and the challenges Chen may face in New Haven.

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