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Column: Nathan Chen, Alysa Liu look to take safe route to World Championships

Nathan Chen poses with his medal after winning the men’s free skate at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Dec. 7 in Turin, Italy.
Nathan Chen poses with his medal after winning the men’s free skate at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Dec. 7 in Turin, Italy.
(Marco Bertorello / Getty Images)

Even the most daring figure skaters know there are times it’s wise to pull back and stay comfortably within the boundaries they usually try to push forward.

Nathan Chen, who will compete for his fourth straight U.S. men’s title next week in Greensboro, N.C., has had to limit his training because of a lingering illness, leading him to reduce the difficulty of the two programs he plans to perform.

Trying a quadruple loop jump is out of the question, he told reporters during a conference call Friday, and he’s not sure he will attempt a quadruple lutz. “Right now, I’m just trying to build my stamina, build my strength, day by day,” said Chen, who has brilliantly juggled his skating with his studies as a sophomore statistics and data science major at Yale.

Chen, 20, probably won’t need the points a quadruple loop would earn in order to finish well ahead of his challengers and earn a berth at the World Championships in Montreal in March. Chen, favored to become the first man to win four straight U.S titles since Brian Boitano triumphed from 1985 through 1988, also won the last two men’s world titles.

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“For the past few weeks I got a little under the weather, so at this point in time I’m just trying to get myself back to 100%,” said Chen, who won the Grand Prix Final title in December by the absurd margin of 43.87 points over two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. “That being said, I don’t think trying to push technique is necessarily my goal here. More just to maintain my body, maintain my health and prepare myself for the second half of the season, as well.”

Bay Area native Alysa Liu, who became the youngest U.S. women’s champion last year at 13 and the first to land three clean triple axel jumps in the national competition, also plans to eliminate some of the difficulty in her long program. Like Chen, Liu has enough high-scoring jumps in her repertoire to win without taking an unnecessary risk.

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Liu was the leader after the short program at the Junior Grand Prix Final last month and had an ambitious plan for her freeskate finale. She attempted two triple axel jumps and two quad lutz jumps — one as part of a combination — but fell on the first triple axel and didn’t cleanly land the quadruple jumps or other triple axel.

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The quality of her performance suffered and she dropped to second behind 13-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva. “I think I should have only done one quad but I really wanted to go for it just for the fun of it,” Liu said afterward.

That philosophy has changed. “We decided to take out one quad lutz. I’m still going to do a quad lutz in my program but things can change,” she said this week. “For now everything’s going pretty well. Right now I’ve just been training like usual. I’ve been skating three hours every day, maybe a little less. I’m taking it a little bit lighter this week so I’m not too exhausted by nationals, so I feel fresh.”

The women’s event will be contested on Thursday and Friday; the men will compete on Saturday and Sunday. The pairs event will take place on Thursday and Saturday, and the ice dancers will compete on Friday and Saturday. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc are the defending pairs champions. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will pursue their third straight ice dance title.

Liu turned 14 in August but won’t be old enough to compete in senior-level events until 2022, the year the Winter Olympics will be staged in Beijing. But she’s now eligible to compete in the world junior championships, which will be held in Estonia in early March. The U.S. team will be selected based on competition results and performance at a selection camp.

Alysa Liu competes in the junior ladies short program at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Dec. 5 in Turin, Italy.
Alysa Liu competes in the junior ladies short program at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Dec. 5 in Turin, Italy.
(Marco Bertorello / Getty Images)

Defending a senior-level national title will be a new experience but Liu said she’s not nervous. “I don’t really worry or think about pressure. I don’t feel pressure that much, right now at least. I don’t think I will as it comes closer, either,” she said. “I’m just excited and I think I’ve trained enough. I think I’m ready for nationals, and we’ll see how I do.”

Chen is coached by Rafael Arutunian, who’s based at Great Park Ice in Irvine. “It’s an amazing facility,” said Chen, who squeezed in a visit to Arutunian during his last school break and will train in Irvine this summer. When they’re not together they confer via Facetime, an arrangement that has worked splendidly thanks to Chen’s discipline and Arutunian’s flexibility.

When Chen is fit and the time is right, he hopes to again push the sport’s boundaries. “I have less than two years before the next Games,” he said, “so in that time I’d still love to continue improving technically and artistically, as much as I can in every department, to make myself even more of a full-package skater, so to speak, and of course see where jumps can go.”

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