The quad fest at Four Continents

Is Nathan Chen for real? Has he been bundled onto earth somehow by a shiny space ship bearing gifts? Is he the lottery ticket somebody lost, then pulled triumphantly out of a drawer?  Is this all a fairy tale?

Injured after last year’s U.S. nationals, Chen was competing at only his second major international event (Grand Prix Final last December, when he took the silver medal behind Hanyu, was his first), at the Four Continents championships, the Olympic test event in Korea this past week. He’s only 17. A little more than a year ago, Chen competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. He won the Junior Grand Prix Final, a little spark of greatness.

Yet he’s seized the pre-Olympic buzz by the throat. And after winning on the weekend in an epic battle with defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, he’ll have the best of memories to take back with him to Pyeongchang a year from now. The rest are all now racing to catch up. And believe me, they will be racing.

The Four Continents promised to be the quad contest beyond all quad contests, with Boyang Jin of China and the American Chen offering up five quads – and Hanyu for the first time trying five – while Shoma Uno of Japan and Kevin Reynolds of Canada attempted four. None were perfect. The risk is beyond the pale.

Just how did Chen and his quiet confidence win his gold medal?

He didn’t actually win the long program. Hanyu did. But Chen put distance between them by winning the short program, while Hanyu doubled a quad Salchow and landed third, 6.08 points behind. It’s a classic case of how important the short program can be. You can’t load it up with everything you can do, but if you miss something, you’re at a disadvantage.

While Hanyu defeated Chen by 2.33 points in the free, it wasn’t enough for gold. Chen still had enough space left to win by 3.75 points.

Hanyu defeated Chen in the free on the strength of his component mark, because Chen actually won the technical mark: 115.48 to Hanyu’s 112.33.

Hanyu won the component mark with 94.34 points, while Patrick Chan was second in this category with 92.58, Uno third with 91.08 and Chen fourth with 88.86, just ahead of the divine Jason Brown at 85.72. Alas, Brown, injured earlier this season, had to dump an uncertain quad from his repertoire. Still, with excellent skating, Brown finished sixth in the free and sixth overall.

Chen also had to face having to skate last, waiting 40 minutes after the warmup to go out onto the ice – and when he did go, the crowd rained down numerous sorts of Pooh things in celebration of a skate Hanyu would have deemed gold worthy on any other day. Still, Chen shrugged it off. Took it like a pro.

“Skating after Yuzu is obviously kind of exciting, so it’s great to be able to skate after that,” he said. “With the whole Winnie the Pooh situation, it’s something that I can’t change. But it was something that I was expecting. I just waited until everything was cleared, got on the ice and did everything I needed to do. I had plenty of time to do what I needed to do, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle for me.” He doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff. Others can turn that into big stuff.

Let’s compare quad to quad, because who doesn’t want to do that in such a contest?

Of Hanyu’s five quads, he landed the quad loop, (a money maker, earning him 2.14 bonus points for 14.14 points), a quad Salchow (11.93 with bonus), he doubled a quad Salchow in combination with a single loop (ouch, only 1.92 points), a quad toe (13.19)  and finally late in the game, a quad toe –double toe (for 13.90 points, and he didn’t maximize his GOE, with a lot of +1s.)

In fact, Hanyu didn’t earn as many high GOE points as usual, and there were no marks at all of 10.00 for components.

The triple Axel is one of his best jumps and he racked up 16.51 points for a triple-triple combo, and a solo triple Axel worth 11.78. We’ve seen him do a triple Axel – loop – triple Salchow in the past – a real point getter – but it wasn’t in this routine, obviously dropped for the fifth quad.

All in all, Hanyu earned 55.08 points for his quad attempts.

Chen opened up with an astonishingly brilliant and difficult quad Lutz – triple toe loop, which earned him a whopping 20.33 points, followed it up with a very nice quad flip (14.73 points), a common old quad toe loop (9.79, because he turned out of it), a quad toe loop – double toe loop (12.03, with the quad landed a little forward) and a quad Salchow (12.84).

Chen landed more quads than triples. (So did Hanyu). But two of Chen’s four triples were Axels, one in combination with a couple of double toe loops. He turned after both triple Axels. Yes, there were bobbles throughout the routine. He managed huge GOEs only after his opening quad combination, his quad flip and his straightline footwork, which was level four.

His quad pointage: 69.72.

Hanyu did five jumps after the half-way mark and three of them were to be quads. This is an onslaught of point-maximizing, if it all works out. Chen did four, with only one a quad. (Let’s give him a break: he’s only 17 and relatively new at this!)

As for Shoma Uno, the bronze medalist, who is actually the Japanese champion because Hanyu missed the event because of flu (extra point to be made, Hanyu hadn’t competed in two months.) also did five jumps in the second half, two of them quads.

He opened up with his new jump, a triple loop (lots of bonus marks for this one at 14.43), a quad flip (14.59), a quad toe loop, which he turned out of, not allowing him to do a double toe at the end (10.79) and a quad toe – double toe loop, because he bravely turned a solo jump into a combo (for 14.05). He fell on both of his triple Axel combinations, losing huge points. And both of them had been in the second half.

Uno’s quad count?  53.86 points.

Boyang Jin? He’s the one that started the quad rush, having unleashed four at the Grand Prix Final and at the world championships last year. But rarely does he get GOEs higher than +1 for anything he does.

The free program in Pyengchang was riddled with problems. Jin landed only one of his five quads cleanly. His opening quad Lutz – triple toe loop was okay, but the Lutz was landed with a break in the waist (18.33); he stepped out of a quad Salchow (8.96); he underrotated and fell on a quad loop (4.40); he fell on a quad toe loop (7.33); and he landed a quad toe loop – double toe loop, but had a hand down on the quad. (11.56). All in all, the big risks he took got him a quad count of only 50.58. If he made mistakes, they were on his quads. Still, he has the third highest technical points, over Uno.

The base value of Jin’s jumps was a whopping 106.18, just shy of Nathan Chen, but he couldn’t maximize them. Jin’s component score was 77.44, well behind that of Hanyu. Jin ended up fifth in the free, and sixth overall, just nipped by Patrick Chan by .47 points.

Chan, fourth with a free skate score of 179.52, well below his best, and a final score of 267.98, attempted three quads but fell on two: his new quad Salchow and the quad toe loop. He did land his opening quad toe loop – triple toe loop to a huge roar from the crowd. It earned him a lofty 17.17 points. His triple Axel that followed – a jump that used to be his nemesis – flew, getting five +3s for 11.07. He underroated the quad Salchow, and got chump change for his two flawed quads. He also stepped out of a triple Lutz, meant to be a big combo. Thinking on his feet, he tacked the end part of that combo onto a triple flip that followed.

He says he needs more snap off the ice into his jumps, and he’ll work on it.

Kevin Reynolds attempted four quads, but tripled the first one, a quad Salchow; underrotated and fell on the quad toe, did land a quad Salchow, but it was underrotated, and he also underrotated the second quad toe. He was assessed one fall. But the miscues (four underrotations) riddled his technical mark. He was 12th in the free and 12th overall.

Reynolds said it was tough mentally to overcome his rough opening, and then with each mistake, he got bogged down further. “You lose your energy and your focus,” he said. He’ll regroup for the world championships on his routine that is “a minefield of technical difficulty that we have to do in the free program now.”

His teammate, Nam Nguyen, who finished behind him at the Canadian championship, ended up eighth overall, with three quads planned. He landed the first one, a quad toe loop, but undrerotated and fell on a quad Salchow. He did land an ambitious quad Salchow – double toe loop – double loop in the second half, good for 15.25 points. Nguyen had the fifth highest technical points (92.57) of the free skate, with much lower component marks (72.52). He was seventh in the free skate, with season’s bests in the free and the total score.

“It’s been a while to see that SB next to my score,” he said, after a season in which he changed coaches twice. “It’s special to me, although it’s not very high compared to the other skaters.” He won’t be going to the world championships, but said he’s been working on a quad flip and “it’s getting there.”

Chen hadn’t intended to do five quads in the free at all this year. He’d done it at U.S. nationals because things had been going so well during the skate. And so he kept it up for Four Continents. “The amount of quads I put into a program in a particular season is relative to how my body is adapting to training, how it’s adapting to competition and what the other skaters are doing,” he said. He said Hanyu pushed him, not only with jumps, but with artistry, too.

“He really kind of started that huge quad craze when we were younger,” he said. “We were all struggling to get our triples and do triple-triples and he was out there doing four quads in a long. I think that really motivated all of us junior skaters to start working on these quads and putting them into the programs. It’s really showing up now that we are senior skaters.”

In other words, Hanyu has started something that will come back to haunt him, much like Patrick Chan did, after starting the trend back to quads following the 2010 Olympics, won without a quad. Now he’s chasing younger skaters, too.

At podium time, Hanyu admitted he felt envious of Chen. But with what the American had accomplished, Hanyu said: “I felt like I want to congratulate him from the bottom of my heart.”

Despite all the accolades he’s earned, this is Hanyu’s third silver medal at Four Continents.

“It’s hard to predict what is going to happen between now and the Olympics,” Hanyu said. “You never know who is going to do another quad.” As we have seen during the past year, things can change quickly. New faces could bound right up the ladder.

And it’s not stopping. Over the weekend, and overshadowed by the Four Continents, was the Bavarian Open in Germany. Canada’s little gem, Stephen Gogolev won an advanced novice competition by landing the second quad Salchow of his life. And he’s 12 years old.

And just for fun, Jason Brown:

Four Continents Day One

The highlight of day one at Four Continents, the test event for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang?

At least among the Canadians, it was Gabby Daleman, a 19-year-old with the mental strength to clobber an apparition, a negative thought, a potential bad day at the office. With all the will she could muster, she landed a triple Lutz. Just refused to let it go. Wouldn’t fail. The fumble on the jump ended up costing her very little and was just enough to put herself into the lead in the short program with 68.25 points, only .04 points ahead of Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond. Her attitude popped her on top.

Osmond delivered all the big tricks, but fell on a double Axel. Elizabet Tursynbaeva, of Kazakhstan, just turned 17, but who looks 12 on a good day, is third after ripping off all the big tricks, including a triple Lutz-triple toe loop, but just not maximizing her GOE. Mia Mihara of Japan landed the same combo but was more efficient with the GOE and ended up getting 11.70 for it, .70 more than the Teensy One. Good enough for fourth. The top four skaters are separated by only 1.74 points. In this game, every zillionth of a point matters.

Daleman’s coach, Lee Barkell, smiled broadly when the marks came up, showing the placing of his student. Daleman allowed herself only a moment of glee. The job is far from over.

Daleman admitted that her short program was “a bit of a fight.” Yet she fought, even though she felt herself slipping before her magnificent triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination and again, going into her flying camel. Although her combo is deemed less difficult than the others at the top, Daleman goes into it like a freight train. It’s a thing of beauty. She received +3s from five of the nine judges and that gave her 10.30 for that element. Osmond’s triple flip – triple toe loop netted her 11.00 points, while Tursynbaeva got only half a point more, and Mihara 1.10 more.

“I’m just thrilled that I fought for everything,” Daleman said, and well she should be. “It’s just an amazing feeling. I felt so comfortable and I got into my knees.” She said it helped that Osmond skated before her. It gave her the semblance of skating at home, in front of Canadians. It kept her calm. She was patient. That was key.

About 2 ½ years ago, Daleman (and other members of the Canadian team) came to a plot of land that was to become the 2018 Olympic figure skating arena and saw only a pile of dirt. Now it has been transformed into a modern arena seating 12,000 people. The chills are not lost on her, but she sees Four Continents as merely a stepping stone to the world championships in another month and a half.

Osmond said there were lots of things she could have done to be more stable on her feet. The short program had been clean all season. She’s not 100 per cent sure about what happened on the Axel. “It was just a little fluke thing,” she said. “I don’t remember the last Axel that I missed. It is just a little mistake that I will fix.”

Most of the rest of the women struggled through the short program and underperformed. Mirai Nagasu, the 2016 Four Continents silver medalist, underrotated and two-footed a triple loop to be fifth; Mariah Bell, who stunned everybody by coming from the shadows to win silver at Skate America last October, was seventh after stepping out and landing in a crouch from a triple flip , and doing only a double toe loop after her triple Lutz, is seventh; the usually consistent Rika Hongo of Japan – winner of the 2014 Rostelecom Cup – is ninth after messing up her combo (double flip – underrotated triple toe loop) although she did maximize all levels on her elements; promising 16-year-old Wakaba Higuchi of Japan fell on her combo and is tenth; reigning U.S. champion Karen Chen fell on an underrotated triple loop, two-footed a double toe loop at the end of her combo and sits 12th ; and Canadian bronze medalist Alaine Chartrand who unravelled in the rink of dreams after missing her combo and falling on a triple loop. She’s 14th. It wasn’t a good day for most.

All of these women need to step it up when they meet a blast of Russians at the world championships and Olympics, such as Evgenia Medvedeva, who set the world record of 79.21 for a short program at the Grand Prix Final last December. Medvedeva chalks up points like an expert pinball player by upping her GOE with a flying hand on most of her jumps. Not pleasing to watch that repetitive motion, but in this game, it works. The rules made by the International Skating Union produces results like this.

Ice dance

If there was another highlight to the day, it was by 2010 Olympic ice dancing champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who clearly attacked and sold Prince in their short dance. They danced on the edge, so much so that they made an error in the partial footwork, which earned them only a level three. “There’s parts today where I felt like swimming upstream, but we kind of bring it back together and don’t let it get to us,” Moir said. “Obviously our strategy is not to let them happen, not make any mistakes, even, but it’s not realistic.”

Even so they finished with79.75, which is only .75 short of their world record, and they are 3.16 points ahead of second-placed Maia and Alex Shibutani with 76.59. Chock and Bates were third with 74.67, behind the Shibutanis in both technical and component content.

While Virtue and Moir received four marks of 10 in components (by two different judges), the Shibs got two of them from the same judge.

Former world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are fifth with 71.15, short of their best, after he hesitated on the second of three twizzles. And they lost levels on all of their elements but their straight line lift.

Canadian bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, relentlessly pushing to make that top group, dropped to seventh after Gilles fell during their not-touching midline step sequence. They also got a level two for their partial step sequence. Truth be told, nobody got a level four on this element.

Poirier said they have had a hard time all season pacing the disco rhythm in the second half of their routine and it leads to “a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes.” They get excited during the crazy disco. Perhaps it’s the beat, the moustache that Poirier so painstakenly grows, those rust-coloured bell-bottomed pants, the woolly hair. It gets away from them. It could do the same for anyone.

Gilles said she felt great going into the midline sequence, but caught a heel and went down. “It was a mistake I don’t think I’ve even made in practice,” she said. “You get excited and you do things that aren’t normal. We lost a lot of levels today.”

Virtue and Moir went to Pyeongchang like kids in a candy store, hoping to relive their 2010 Olympic victory a year from now. They arrived a day early and practiced in the practice rink on Monday. Then they ran upstairs to drink in the scene. “We were really the only ones here and we were like children,” Virtue said. “We were so giddy with excitement. It is everything you wish for an Olympic venue. Everything you dream about, this rink has it: something really special and tangible. It’s huge but it still feels so intimate.

“It makes such a difference going home and being able to visualize our Olympic moments, hopefully, know that we skated here and that we really can take it in, picture the behind-the-scenes and everything. It’s just been magical.” (The Europeans don’t get this opportunity.)

Pairs

It wasn’t all so magical for two-time world pair champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Duhamel arrived after the very long trip to Korea without her skates, although she received them in time to get a practice in. But Radford fell uncharacteristically on a triple Lutz in the pair short program. That set them back to third place behind a Chinese team competing internationally for the first time this season.

Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, current world silver medalists, hadn’t competed this season at all as Sui took months off after surgery to correct an ankle problem. Despite their absence, they were brilliant in Pyeongchang, skating to “Blues for Klook,” a distinct departure from anything they had ever done. “We enjoyed being back and feeling the vibe of the competition,” said Sui, who also admitted to nerves.

“I think we could have skated better than we did,” she said.

Better? They finished with 80.05 points, their best score ever, higher than Duhamel and Radford’s best score (78.39). They maximized all of their levels, except for the flying camel combo spin. During their entire routine, they had only three GOE bonus points lower than +2. Their element score of 44.83 points easily exceeded their component score of 35.92. If they can improve off this, they will be deadly. In fact, they already are.

“There is a lot we still can improve,” Han said.

Sui admitted that she was lucky to be back at all. They will do a long program to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” which they say is really their story, coming back from injury. “So it is very emotional for us,” Han said.

“When we chose the long program, everybody loved it, the coach and choreographer [Nicholl] loved it,” Sui said. “The lyrics describe our experiences after the operation. It was such a hard time. My life was very painful and I was crying every day.

“My partner helped me a lot and encouraged me. He said things will get better and you’ll be back soon.

“When I came back to the ice rink, he was afraid that I was in pain, but I said: ‘That’s okay.’ It’s just like the lyrics said: we help each other and we work together.”

Sui and Han finished first in the short program, but their training mates, Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang were second, 5.55 points behind. (Duhamel and Radford are 6.44 points behind the leaders). Yu and Zhang, the May-December partnership (she is 21, and he is at least 32 and probably 34 or 35), didn’t put a foot wrong, although they had only the fourth highest components (Duhamel and Radford were second highest). Their huge triple twist is their big money maker and their throw triple loop helped out, too.

“We felt some pressure, but we were able to overcome it,” said the elegant Yu.

“We skated better than I thought I would, because there were some mistakes in practice,” she said. The solo jump had not been going well and she said her “condition” wasn’t so good, either. The atmosphere lifted them to this performance.

The Chinese may be the greatest threats to the Canadian world champions (as well as Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot) and a third Chinese team – Cheng Peng and Yang Jin, who in their first year together had finished second at both Cup of China and NHK Trophy – dropped to seventh after Peng fell on a camel spin, and just could not get back into the following sit spin, either. They received no marks at all for that element.

Still, Duhamel and Radford always have a plan, and know what they need to do. Radford said their performance was a step up from the Canadian championships. “It’s unfortunate about the Lutz,” he said. “But it can’t be perfect all the time. They’ve been really, really good for me for the last month.”

Radford says he thinks his focus was a bit in the wrong spot. “Usually I go in with a specific sort of direction, internal direction,” he said. “I was just trying to let it happen. But I think I was a little bit too much letting it happen as opposed to making it happen.”

Duhamel acknowledged that it’s always hard to sell a routine with high energy (“Killer” by Seal) but felt they had done a good job of this. “It’s been years since Eric fell in the short,” she said. “He doesn’t normally. It actually took me, I was surprised.

“The whole program, I was thinking: ‘What could have happened? That’s so strange. It’s so uncharacteristic.’ But it happens. It’s sport. “

It was disappointing, because they had worked hard to get a level four twist (worth a base point of 6.60), but they got only a level three on it in the short program (worth 6.20 points, and with GOE, they got 7.60 for it.) The two top Chinese teams did get level four for it. Sui and Han received a total of 8.20 points while Yu and Zhang got 8.40 for their twist which flew into the heavens. These two Chinese teams were the only ones that achieved a level four on the triple twist.

“Our coaches said we were a bit slow today on it,” Duhamel said. “”Something we’ll try to achieve in the long is the level four twist.”

Canadian pair teams finished third, fourth and fifth, with the other two bubbling at their success. Lubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch finally broke through with a fourth place finish and a season’s best score of 73.04 points. In fact, their component score outdid that of the second Chinese team.

“We’re happy with that short,” Moscovitch said. “We did a good job of staying in the moment and staying present throughout the program. Each piece of the choreography and each element had a similar level of effort and focus.”

Best of all, it puts them in the last group for the free skate. “That’s perfect to be there,” Ilyushechkina said. “It’s good to recognize that we are treated as one of the best teams in the world.”

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro were competing in their first international competition of the season after she suffered a concussion during the summer. And with a score of 70.89, it was their first score better than 70 points since they joined forces as a team two years ago. “So we’re really thrilled,” she said. “”After the injury in the summer, we had to learn how to train a little bit differently but I think because of that, our communication and our connection as a team has grown. It has really proven beneficial for us in our skating.”

“We’re showing that stride forward we’ve made since last year and quite a big jump in our score also,” Marinaro said.

American teams were sixth, eighth and ninth of 15 teams.

Chan’s game plan in the face of all quads

About 3 ½ months ago, at Skate Canada International, Patrick Chan felt the heaviness in his legs during the long program and wondered why.

Yes, he won the gold medal at Skate Canada last fall by almost four points over Yuzuru Hanyu, but it hadn’t gone as well as hoped in the free skate for the three-time world champion from Canada, who is still putting his puzzle together before Pyeongchang.

Hanyu had defeated Chan in the free skate by about seven points, even with a fall on a quad loop and having doubled a quad Salchow. But Chan fell on his new quad Salchow, then doubled some jumps at the end of his long program, as his legs dragged him away from winning that segment. Chan’s components saved him that day. He out-footed Hanyu by about three points for the artistic side. Hanyu defeated him in the free by 10 points.

Chan spoke the next day to Elvis Stojko about the heavy feeling in his legs, and Stojko gave him advice on conserving NO energy while training, so that when stresses of big competitions befell him, he’d have something in reserve.

But Chan also began to consider something else: a sports psychologist. Even though he is 26 years old, has competed at two Olympics and seven world championships and is a nine-time Canadian champion, he’s never had one.

After a practice at Skate Canada, his coach Marina Zoueva asked him if he knew any breathing exercises to combat the tightness he felt in his upper body that seemed to drain the strength from his core. He didn’t. And then he began to think that he should. “It doesn’t hurt to try everything,” he said. “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

Judy Goss, Skate Canada’s go-to sport psychologist, recommended that Chan see Scott Goldman at the University of Michigan, only a 20-minute drive from the rink at which he trains. Goldman is a director of high performance psychology at the university, with a history of athletic enhancement, and confidence building. All good stuff for Chan.

Chan met with Goldman just before the Canadian championships and had great opportunities to try out some tools, especially since he had to deal with long waits to compete: he always skated last. His calm coach Oleg Epstein told Chan he had 40 minutes before he was to skate after he came off the warmup. Chan didn’t hurry to take off his skates. Then he found a table, climbed aboard and began some breathing exercises, accompanied by some visualization. There is no exact science to this, no defined formula to stave off unproductive thoughts.

Mind you, it wasn’t an extremely high pressure situation at the event in Ottawa, because Chan led by 10 points going into the free skate. And he knew there wasn’t a herd of competitors about to unleash a string of quads at him, other than Canada’s Quad King, Kevin Reynolds, who attempted four quads in the free.

But there will be at the upcoming Four Continents championships in Pyeongchang, which serves as a test event for the 2018 Winter Games. Quads will be flying. More than anybody has ever seen.

He’ll have to face his young friend, Nathan Chen, who dazzled a nation (the world too) with his spectacular free skate at the U.S. championships where he landed five deft quads. The sky seems the limit.

And just last week, came word from China that Jin Boyang plans to do five quads, too, in his free skate, up from the four he used to win the world bronze medal last March in Boston. He aims to blitz the rink with a quad Lutz – triple toe loop, a quad Salchow, a quad loop, a quad toe loop and a quad toe loop – double toe loop.

Chen has a slightly different repertoire. He doesn’t do the quad loop, but he does do the quad flip, which is worth more points. (Quad loop is worth a base mark of 12 points, a quad flip a trickle more at 12.3. The quad Lutz? Now there’s a jump. It wasn’t so long ago that Chan didn’t think it possible. It’s worth 13.6 points. And now several skaters are doing it. Junior skaters are training it. Hey, even 12-year-old Stephen Gogolev, Canada’s new junior champion, has tried them.)

Chan has re-entered a crazy world indeed, rotations ablur. Now in his second year of a comeback, he’s had to face a growing list of competitors who do more and more difficult quads. As scintillating as his win was at the Canadian championships (he did land only two quads in the free, and a third turned into a triple toe loop), he seemed to be going in the right direction. And then Chen unleashed his fireworks at the U.S. championships a day later.

It’s a crazy exercise to compare Chan’s marks with Chen’s at two national championships, not judged independently by international judges. But perhaps they tell a story.

Chen’s free skate score was 212.08. Chan wasn’t all that far behind him with 205.36, only about seven points. Chan could have almost closed the gap if he had landed a quad toe loop instead of a triple.And with some bonus points, he could have edged ahead.

Without a doubt, Chen’s element score outpaced that of his northern neighbour, Chan. While Chen earned 121.08, Chan got 106.88. Chan also got as close as he did by maximizing his grade of execution marks. Judges gave him plenty of +2s and +3s as bonus points. Yes, Chen was getting some +3s, too, but many more +1s.

As for the component mark, Chan rules this category and he did that week, too. Canadian judges gave him 98.48 points. Chen got 91.00. While Chen didn’t crack 10, Chan got 22 marks of 10.

Okay, okay, lest there’s an uprising over the idea that Canadian judges may have been heaping rewards on Chan so that he could go off to the international wars with their backing, let’s look at the Grand Prix Final. It’s not so easy to compare different competitions, because Chan didn’t skate his best in Marseille, and Chen won the free skate over more seasoned competitors, including Hanyu and Javier Fernandez, both world champions.

But in Marseille, international judges were a little more reluctant to dish out high GOEs to Chen, almost three points less. And his component marks were 84.42  in Marseille, 6.58 points lower than what he earned at U.S. nationals.  Still, there’s always the argument that he had progressed by the U.S. championships, too.

Chan fell four times at the Grand Prix Final free skate, so obviously he had improved by the Canadian championships.

So perhaps there’s hope for Chan, if he gets his mental hamsters under control. And if he delivers. Still, it’s most important that he delivers a year from now. And it’s important that he has included the quad Salchow this year. He says the next step is to put two quads in the short, which could go a long way to having him reach his goals.

At the beginning of the year, Chan said he saw himself as a skater who could fall into third, fourth or fifth position, not first, or maybe even second.  “And that’s okay,” he said. “It helps me to focus on what I have to do and not think about : ‘Oh I’m head to head with Yuzuru or I’m head to head against Javi and I’ve got to do as many quads as they are.’” Now he has a few more names to add.

Where is it all going to go? What is the limit? “We don’t know,” Chan said. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundary until something has to give. Either you will have skaters that will not last very long due to injury or maybe the presentation side of the sport gets affected. I leave it up to everyone.

“I’ve said it over and over again: the skating is more important. It’s cool to see the other guys pushing the boundaries. It’s amazing to see them rotate these jumps. I’m in awe. I’m going to stick to my plan. I’m not going to change it, according to that. But it’s going to be interesting to sit back and see where it does top out and where the limit is.”

How much does artistry suffer when a program has four or five quads? “I see a lot of two-foot skating, which is not bad,” Chan said. “It means they are centred. They are balanced. Whereas I feel like I ebb and flow from one leg to another. I transfer my weight from one to another.”

It also makes it more difficult to maintain balance. It creates a lot of flow in Chan’s skating, but he sometimes gets off balance and has to set himself up for a jump. There are pros and cons. “It depends on how a judge interprets that,” Chan said.

Chen almost seems to be alone in delivering endless amounts of quads without a lot of falls. Everybody else has been slip-sliding this year at one moment or another. Hanyu has taken lots of falls. Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, can see how it’s all building to the 2018 Games.

He told Chan, since everyone is now working on quads, that he has one season only to get this right. He must add the quads now. “I told him, you are going to make mistakes, bro,” Stojko said. “You may have to give up competition and wins for it. Hanyu did. The last couple of years, he tried quads and fell. How many performances have you seen him just splat everywhere? And then all of a sudden, last year he does that almost perfect program. He’s starting to do it.

“Nathan Chen, same thing. A young kid coming up, they are going to splat all over. People only see that one performance and say quads shouldn’t be in. But you don’t see the big picture of what they’re doing. They’re trying to learn how to do these things under pressure in competition. You’re going to make mistakes before it becomes perfect.”

Still, don’t expect Chan to add some quad loops or flip or Lutzes into his repertoire in the next year. Epstein thinks he can learn another one. Chan doesn’t think it’s necessary.

Firstly, it’s pointless to set ridiculous goals that only serve to discourage you and then you get mentally stuck and achieve nothing, Chan said. Secondly, Chan wants to remain healthy.

“Nathan and Shoma [Uno] are going to be 26 and 28 at the end of their career and not be able to ever do any other sports. They are going to be so banged up,” Chan said.

Chan values his post-career activities. He wants to be able to go to the back country and ski. He wants to go rock climbing, sky diving too.

The first thing he‘s going to do when he’s finished is buy himself a pair of powder skis and find a mountain to climb. For now, he’s climbing another one.

To do it, he’s reading “The Rise of Superman,” a book that details a rather magical mental state allowing one to accomplish the impossible, or at least the difficult. It’s called flow. Or being in the zone, when time seems to stand still.

The psychologist is “a leap of faith,” Chan said. “I had to find a way to get myself not to focus on what all the other skaters are doing.”

The Four Continents will be an important test along the way.

Is the quad Axel the next frontier?

A story I wrote for Yahoo Canada recently:

 

Over the past year, male figure skaters have been loading their programs with more and different kinds of quadruple jumps, choosing airborne power over spins and fancy footwork.

But nobody has touched the giant of them all, the quad Axel, a jump that by virtue of it being an Axel, has an extra half rotation to it. Anybody tackling a quad Axel would have to rotate 4 ½ times in the air. And since a typical quad takes about a second to do, is it even possible?

As it is, skaters have dipped their toes cautiously and gradually into the quad realm. But suddenly last year, the quad rush began in earnest. And it came from skating youth. Chinese skater Jin Boyang, now 19, was the first to put that crazy quad Lutz in combination with another jump, a triple toe loop during  the 2015-2016 season. And he was the first to land four quads in a single long program, which helped him win a bronze medal at the world championship last year. At the U.S. championships this year, 17-year-old Nathan Chen landed five quads in his long program to win his title by more than 55 points.

 

 

 

 

The quad Axel is the final frontier. Some of the sport’s leading minds are pondering the possibility of a skater landing one, especially leading into the 2018 Olympics. It will definitely be a Games in which figure skating becomes a race conducted in the air.

So is it possible?

Mike Slipchuk, winner of the Canadian men’s title 25 years ago, currently high-performance director for Skate Canada:

“To me, it’s just a matter of time before someone does one. I don’t know how soon. Not in the too-distant future. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.”

Canadian Kurt Browning was the first man to land a quadruple jump – a toe loop – at the 1988 world championship. But a decade lapsed before Tim Goebel of the United States landed a different one, a quadruple Salchow. Another 13 years passed before Brandon Mroz, an American, got credit in 2011 for landing an extremely difficult quadruple Lutz in competition. But now the quads are coming thick and fast.

Tom Zakrajsek, U.S. coach of Brandon Mroz and former U.S. champion Max Aaron:

“Having worked the past two years with Max Aaron for brief periods of time on the quad Axel and watching 2015 world team member Josh Farris resume performing his beautiful triple Axel which flies effortlessly through the air, I definitely think it’s possible and will surely happen someday.

“Even Chen, when asked by a journalist about a quadruple Axel said: ‘The quad Axel is not impossible. I’ve seen Max Aaron do a quad Axel.’”

Conrad Orzel, 16, new Canadian junior silver medalist who landed a quadruple toe loop in his long program at the Canadian championships this month (January):

“The way skating is, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the sport has gone up and inspired so much that we now see people in Canada in juniors that do quad Salchow and quad toe loop. So it’s crazy.

“That would be something to think about in the future. I landed a quad Lutz [in training] so I guess the next step would be quad Axel.”

Brian Orser, 1987 world champion and coach of 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and 2010 women’s Olympic champion Kim Yu Na, of South Korea, his first student:

“A quad Axel is a tall order, but never say never.”

At 17, Chen is the Western world’s answer to Jin. Chen has landed quadruple toe loop, quadruple Salchow, quadruple flip and quadruple Lutz. The only four-rotation quad left was the loop. And last September in Montreal, Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion from Japan, became the first to land that one. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno (Hanyu was out with the flu) at age 19, was the first to land a quad flip earlier this season.  

But the quadruple Axel is another matter altogether. On the scale of difficulty, it is beyond the pale. The quadruple toe loop is considered the easiest quad (and the most common), while the others range in order of risk: quad Salchow, quad loop, quad flip and quad Lutz. Some skaters  find the triple Axel – a t 3 ½ rotations – sometimes trickier to master than the easiest quad. It is the jump that 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser ushered into common use in 1980 as a junior.

Why is the triple Axel – or any Axel – so difficult?

Kurt Browning, four-time world champion:

“The Axel is hard. It’s a lot of momentum off an edge going forward, with a swinging foot, not assisted by a toe pick. And it’s not a transfer of weight like other jumps. And with other jumps, we’re used to going backward [into them]. The Axel is the only jump that you enter going forwards. It’s technically half a rotation more.

“The triple Axel is still the king of jumps.”

Brian Orser:

“There are different ways to do an Axel. You have those that go in off an edge. You have those who skid into an Axel. There is no way better than another.  Javi [Fernandez] has a skid. Yuzuru has an edge. Stephen [Gogolev, 12, who has landed a quad Salchow this season] has an edge. I had a skid. Some coaches prefer to teach a skid, some prefer to teach an edge. There’s a lot of torque in the foot with a skid, and it kind of releases your rotation.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“It’s obviously a tougher one for people to do because of the time you need in the air and with the triple Axel being as hard as it is. It’s a thing you will see. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.

When you see skaters learning quad toe loop, and quad flip, you can see the triples develop with room for the quad. But I don’t think many people have worked a triple Axel to find that space for an extra turn.”

What is the lure of doing such a formidable jump as the quad Axel? Isn’t the quad Lutz enough?

Kurt Browning:

“There is only one quad left. And it’s kind of interesting because there’s only one left and there’s a little notoriety in who does it.”

Michael Slipchuk:

I think we will start to see a different Axel, where you start to see room [to do an extra rotation.] Everyone always wants to be the first to do something.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“To put it into perspective, the quad Axel is worth 15 points if landed, roughly one-fifth of the average man’s technical element score for the long program (75 points) and a little less than half of the average man’s [technical] score for the short program (35 points). [With four points off for a fall], the quad Axel is still worth more than a landed quad Salchow or quad toe loop and almost as much as a quad loop or quad flip. Clearly, the International Skating Union has made it worth the risk.”

Kurt Browning:

“I’ve tried it, when I was a kid. I spent three or four days on it. Not a full week. Out of curiosity. It was kind of bragging rights. Can I do it?

“I don’t think I got real close to it. It literally felt like I was in the air forever. And that I must be done by now. And I kept coming out of it early. I wasn’t hitting the ice short [of complete rotation.] I was actually opening up just too darned soon. Had I stayed on, I might have been close, but I would have been short on rotation. I only tried five or six in my life.

“And then it got close to competition and my coach went: ‘What are you doing? You are going to hurt yourself. Stop that.’

“So I stopped. So is it possible? I must have to say yes, because I was trying the darned thing. I wouldn’t have tried it if I thought it was impossible.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Videos of quad Axel attempts in the pole harness can be found on the internet by Max Aaron and Australian Brendan Kerry…But probably the best attempt is by Russian Artur Dmitriev Jr. – whose father is two-time Olympic pair champion of the same name – off the pole and clearly with enough rotation all on his own.

“Brandon and I had many conversations about learning them [quads] – even the Axel – especially on days when his triple Axel was feeling easy and floating and the timing was effortless.

“During the last month, I have been helping 16-year-old Vincent Zhou [second at the U.S. championship this January to Chen], with many of his quadruples and there are days when I can see it in his triple Axel.  As soon as he is stronger to achieve a bit more airtime, the timing, technique and super-tight rotation position are already there, as is the desire!”

Kurt Browning:

“So if somebody did it, who would it be? Generally, everyone gravitates to Hanyu. He carries a lot of speed into his triple Axel and he has the ability. His Axel is beautiful. It looks like there might be room for it. I’m not sure his triple Axel is high enough. But I don’t think he’s trying to get it higher. Maybe he could. Maybe it only has to be this much [a couple of inches.]

“How talented is he? So talented that I didn’t fathom that he could be that good. Like when I see his stuff online, the stuff that he does at the end of shows, like a triple Axel – triple Axel [combination.] Just goofy stuff. But it’s the edgework as he goes into these beautiful things. It’s the way he shifts his weight. It’s like watching an animal. It’s like you are staring down into the water. You can see a fish and then it’s gone. And you don’t really how how that fish left. I put Hanyu on a pedestal.”

Brian Orser:

I don’t know how many people you would put into the ability pool. Yuzuru would be at the top of the list. If anybody could do it, it would be him. I think he tried one in the finale of a show [in Japan.] He splatted on it. But it was not a bad attempt. His triple Axel is so good. It climbs. It’s powerful. He’s in charge on that jump.

“All of a sudden now, you see all quads. Mabye one of these young guys will do it. Stephen [Gogolev, Orser’s student] is doing [in training] a quad Lutz and a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow. I think Conrad Orzell is trying a quad Lutz and then there are guys in senior who are doing quad flips and quad Lutzes. It’s exciting.”

Conrad Orzel:

“You have lots of a talent like Stephen [Gogolev] who will probably pull it off.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“Who could do it? Off hand, no one that I could say right now.

And quintuples? You never know. Maybe someone will do that before they do quad Axel. Younger kids are learning quads earlier, trying maybe to be the ones that will do it.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Skating fans all over the world will be waiting for the day when the quad Axel is landed in competition and quintuples are added to the ISU scale of values.”