By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - A haircut, double-masking and a few prayers will all be part of Nathan Chen's preparations as the American heads to Stockholm to defend his world championship figure skating singles title with the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over the competition.
The double world champion told reporters he was looking forward to renewing his great rivalry with Japan's twice Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru at the March 22-28 event but was not so excited about his first international flight in over a year.
"I can't lie and say I'm not (anxious))," said Chen. "I know in theory airplanes are safe but there's still an issue, especially on international flights, where people will be taking off their masks to eat and bathrooms are always sketchy.
"So I have my anxieties about the travel but I will do my very best to keep my mask from slipping and obviously double masking throughout the flight and praying I don't get sick."
Chen's concerns don't end with the travel. The 21-year-old also wants to see strict health and safety protocols enforced after being less than impressed with how some other events were run during the pandemic.
Sweden, a country of 10 million people, has shunned lockdowns during the pandemic and has a death rate per capita many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours.
There will be no spectators inside the Globe Arena.
"Number one (concern) is making sure everyone is being responsible about wearing their masks, social distancing, taking this seriously," said Chen.
"Not to name names but I have seen how events have been run the past year and things didn't seem to be structured well.
"As long as everyone's staying proactive and being responsible about the requirements, what they're supposed to do, as well as having repercussions for not wearing masks or doing other things, I think that'd be better."
Due to the pandemic Chen has not competed much in the last year, skating in just two events.
Since a crushing fifth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Chen has not lost a competition, including a fifth consecutive U.S. national title in January.
Chen has no plans to change the routines that carried him to victory in Las Vegas but acknowledged that without competition he had not got all the feedback he might have received.
"I think that not having competitions is actually kind of a loss just because you learn so much at competitions," said the mop-topped skater who has a haircut on his to do list.
"In training, you come in every day and you're a little bit more consistent with them (the routines) but you don't necessarily have, like, weird variables thrown your way.
"Not having competitions makes you kind of forget that sort of rhythm," he added.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)