Hanyu, Chen face off at Grand Prix Finals

Sports
Yuzuru Hanyu

FILE – In this Feb. 17, 2018, file photo, Yuzuru Hanyu, of Japan, performs during the men’s free figure skating final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. Hanyu, the world’s most popular figure skater, and American Nathan Chen, his biggest rival, face off at the Grand Prix Finals this week in Turin, Italy. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu owns the last two Olympic gold medals. No man has won three in a row.

American Nathan Chen owns the last two world titles. No U.S. man has won three straight since Scott Hamilton in the early 1980s.

Hanyu, the world’s most popular figure skater, and Chen, his biggest rival, face off at the Grand Prix Finals this week in Turin, Italy.

Chen has won the last two GP Finals, but Hanyu, who has battled injuries for years, didn’t compete in either. Chen, a full-time student at Yale, did beat Hanyu at worlds in March, though.

Each won two Grand Prix events to get there. They’ll certainly meet again at worlds in Montreal next March, but this is a matchup to savor, too.

“It’s nice to have someone who pushes you on and off of the ice, who is competitive and also improving,” Chen said. “And showing they are ahead of you in some areas, so I can say, ‘This is how I can get better.’

“I think we are both competitive people and understand how it works and how much time we must put into it. There’s no bad blood there, and I realize most of the guys have the potential to be first in most of the events. I know it pushes me and I hope it pushes him to have this competition. I am glad I have him to push me.”

They are likely to push each other — and the rest of the men’s field — to heights previously unattained.

Already, Chen has lifted the men toward making all quadruple jumps except an axel necessary parts of their free skates. Dismissing anyone also doing the 4 1/2 rotations — axels are the only jump done with a forward liftoff — would be foolhardy in the current skating environment and scoring system.

Hanyu has upped the ante on performance, which isn’t quite as significant in the scoring as it used to be, but certainly is a critical element. He is a master showman as well as an elite skater.

Chen is on quite a winning streak since his awful performance in the short program at the 2018 Olympics eliminated any shot at the podium. He hasn’t lost an important competition since, and next month will attempt to win a fourth successive U.S. crown, which hasn’t been done since Brian Boitano finished off that quad in 1988.

“I don’t think about it at all,” Chen said of the accolades. “The awards and medals I get and placement, there is no way to control that. It would make me stress out too much if I thought about that.”

One thing Chen is thinking about is one of the stronger American contingents at the GP Finals, where the top six skaters or duos qualify. The United States has two ice dance couples: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates. And for the first time since 2015, a U.S. woman made the finals: Bradie Tennell.

Hubbell and Donohue won Skate America and were second at Skate Canada, the first two events of the Grand Prix circuit. They haven’t competed since, which has given them more than a month to refine their programs, which feature music by Lady Gaga.

“We have five weeks to continue improving while the rest of the competition is competing,” Hubbell said. “We like the fact it gave us that chunk of time to rest and recover and build up to peak.”

“The first time we showed the program was in Las Vegas (at Skate America). There were a lot of pros in the feedback we got and a lot of things we kind of learned about the programs by competing. We got a lot of feedback from the federation and the judging panel and our coaching staff.”

That led to some small changes, added Donohue, but nothing that would diminish the emotion and drama of the programs.

“When we pour ourselves into the program, we have to know what we want the audience and the judging panel to feel,” he said. “We kind of have a target with such a worldwide known piece as ‘A Star Is Born.’ We hope to have people go on the same or a similar journey as it takes us.”

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