Funny how things work out sometimes.
Massimo Scali had hoped to go to the 2022 Winter Olympics as Alysa Liu’s coach.
That did not happen, so Scali is watching the Olympics from his home in Oakland, Calif.
But he still was present in Beijing through Nathan Chen.
Chen had sought input from Scali soon after learning the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer suddenly and surprisingly was free of coaching commitments to Liu.
“He has been incredibly helpful, so I just feel a need to mention that,” Chen said at a press conference in Beijing the day after winning the gold medal.
“I am so happy for being able to collaborate with Nathan recently,” Scali said Friday by telephone. “To have seen him skate the way he did in this Olympics was quite a show. I’m so proud.”
The two had collaborated in Canton, Michigan, six years ago, when Chen spent time working on his 2016-17 season programs with coach — choreographer Marina Zoueva. Her coaching team had included Scali, who said he helped Chen about a half-dozen times back then, mainly on footwork and general skating skills.
A few years later, after moving west, Scali began assisting with Liu’s training in Oakland. He became her full-time primary coach in autumn 2020.
That lasted until Liu’s father, Arthur, unexpectedly decided to find the two-time U.S. champion a new coaching team in the middle of November because, as he told me by text, “The coaches and I were not on the same page as to how the training should be.”
Scali was stunned and dismayed.
“I was burned out about skating a little bit,” Scali said. “I was trying to take a mental break.”
And then Chen called.
Chen remembered the help Scali had provided before, even though they had only the few sessions together. He thought Scali could provide finishing touches on the presentation of his 2022 Olympic programs.
“Throughout this season, I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Chen said. “Knowing Massi was now available to work with me, I asked him if that was something he was willing to do. We made sure it was okay with everyone else and got the all clear.”
Said Scali: “I told him I wouldn’t have done this for anyone else. I wasn’t in a mood to keep working this season. The call brought me back something positive, some light. I was so honored he called.”
Scali began this recent collaboration with Chen at the end of November. They worked together two or three days a week for several weeks. During the two weeks before the skater left for Beijing, Scali was at Chen’s practice rink in Irvine, California, every day.
“We started working on the things I felt I was lacking,” Chen said. “Rafael (Arutunian, his coach of 11 years) covers a lot of my bases, basically everything I need in competition. But I did feel having an extra set of eyes such as Massi’s would help in the weeks before the Olympics.”
Scali, 42, competed at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics with Federica Faiella, finishing 18th, 13th and fifth. They won a bronze medal at the World Championships and two silver medals at the European Championships. He has an ice dancer’s sense of body and facial expression.
One area Chen said Scali focused on was making sure the skater smiled during the upbeat final section of the free skate to show everyone he was enjoying the program.
“Wearing a mask the past two weeks, I had completely forgotten what my face looked like,” Chen said.
Scali said he wore two masks and a face shield every time he worked with Chen.
Staying six feet away from each other, they concentrated on what Scali described as “basically everything that was about the component scores” in Chen’s long program to an Elton John medley. That included finding ways to get more flow from transitions, to have better flow into jumps, to add details in hand and head positions.
“With Nathan, we’re talking just about little things,” Scali said. “He has the rest.
It also meant emphasizing look and feeling in each section of the program.
“It’s really important to have your soul connected with what you’re doing,” Scali said. “I think he had lost a little of the intensity of that connection. We gave the long (program) the soul he wasn’t feeling.
“We went through a lot of moments getting his movement and expression and emotion do what the music was saying.”
Scali was delighted to see Chen in the Olympic long program doing the things they had worked on. Some were subtle, some as striking as Chen executing both the quadruple flip and triple toe loop of his big initial jumping on consecutive powerful beats in the music.
“He hit every accent we were working on,” Scali said. “That connection with the music on the right beat helps the program make sense, and it all goes into the eyes of the people watching and, of course, of the judges. It gives the feeling, ‘I know what I’m skating to, and I bring my soul and emotion to the movement.'”
The result was the highest total program component score of Chen’s career.
“He put in a lot of great work with me for the last two weeks I was in California,” Chen said.
Scali admitted to some trepidation about tinkering with the skating of the three-time reigning world champion so close to the biggest competition of Chen’s life. It was reassuring, Scali said, when Arutunian would ask every day, “You’re coming back, right?”
“There is always in the back of your mind, ‘Am I doing the right thing?'” Scali said. “I always go back to the feeling the skater is giving me. I could feel we were on the right track.”
Scali said he absolutely does not want people to think he deserves substantial credit for Chen’s brilliant skating at the Olympics. Yet it was Chen who revealed Scali’s contribution.
“I was just happy and proud I could help him with anything he needed to feel ready for the Games,” Scali said.
It was enough for him to see the skater’s face at the end of the long program. Chen smiled plenty.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.
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