Heavily Favored For Beijing, Nathan Chen Will Take Things 'Step By Step'
by Lynn Rutherford
Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.
As he heads into the Olympic season, Nathan Chen seems to hold all of the cards in his skate bag.
Undefeated since the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the five-time U.S. champion has won 11 consecutive competitions. The victories aren’t close: earlier this year, he won his third straight world title by more than 29 points over the field. The 335.30 points he earned at the Grand Prix Final in December 2019 remains a record total score.
The only recent crack in Chen’s armor came in the short program at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm this March, when a fall on a quadruple Lutz jump in his short program put him third, more than eight points behind two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. It was his first tumble in competition in more than two years.
Chen rebounded the next day with a clean free skate featuring five quadruple jumps — including the Lutz.
“I felt almost a sense of relief, I guess, after the short program, having made a mistake, having been in a position where I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I’m really in a position to vie for first anymore,” Chen told reporters after his program. “So, I was just kind of, ‘I am going to try my best in the long program and whatever happens, happens.’ It kind of took away some of the stress.”
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, pointed to that performance as a turning point for the 22-year-old skater.
“Missing that jump in short was fuel for the fire,” Hamilton said. “Knowing how smart Nathan is, and how technically proficient he is, he knows exactly what he needs to do to win. He’s gotten to that maturity level.”
According to Hamilton, Chen’s technical repertoire — he has landed five different types of quadruple jumps in competition — combined with top-flight choreography and performance quality, sets him apart from the rest.
“He is winning by such margins, how is another guy going to beat him?” Hamilton said. “I watched him at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp (held in Nashville, Tennessee, in August). He is just so relaxed and methodical about his approach. There is no more effort for him to do quads, than there was for (1988 Olympic champion) Brian Boitano to do triples. They are not a superhuman feat for him.
“Combine that with his component scores — which are near-perfect — and Nathan can be strategic instead of wandering into a competition, throwing out the kitchen sink and trying everything.”
Nathan Chen celebrates after the men's free skating event at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 27, 2021 in Stockholm.
The last U.S. man to win Olympic figure skating gold, Evan Lysacek, rates consistency and coolness under fire as Chen’s greatest strengths.
“A clean free skate will win (in Beijing),” the 2010 Olympic champion said. “Whether it’s three quads, five quads, six quads. Whoever skates clean will win, because the strategy behind these programs is very similar.”
And, reasons Lysacek, Chen is in the best position to lay down a clean program.
“Nathan is in a league of his own, because he didn’t just do the quads, especially in his (2021) worlds free skate, but the quads were flawless,” Lysacek said. “There was not a bobble, there was not a balance check. There was no hesitation going in. … That sets him apart. A lot of people land quads, they fall on one, they hit another one or they hang on for dear life.”
Now a Los Angeles-based real estate developer, Lysacek got to know Chen during occasional practice sessions at Great Park Ice in Irvine, California, Chen’s home rink, where he trains under Rafael Arutunian.
“I think that he has his own style,” Lysacek said. “The way that he moves has, of course, the foundation of classically trained ballet, because he has that education, but he’s brought his own kind of 2021 Gen Z layer to it. … I have a gut feeling that he’s just going to keep distancing himself more and more from the competition.”
But ice is slippery, and Chen is far from assured of gold at the Beijing Games.
At age 18, the Salt Lake City native entered the 2018 Games as a favorite only to skate a disastrous short program that left him in 17th place. Not even winning the free skate could lift him on to the podium, and he finished fifth (Chen, along with teammates, won bronze in the team event).
That 17th-place short program has kept Chen grounded for more than three years.
“The (winning) streak … is something I am really happy about, but inevitably it is going to end, whether it is this competition or the next or the following competition,” he said last season. “I can’t ever become complacent where I am. These guys are always becoming stronger and stronger. Especially coming to the Olympic season, they are going to get even stronger.”
A rising junior at Yale University, Chen is taking a leave of absence in order to focus on Olympic preparation. He has said in several interviews he plans to return to Yale for the 2022-23 academic year. Hamilton bets that four years of seasoning and experience will prevent a second Olympic disappointment for Chen in Beijing. In fact, he thinks memories of PyeongChang will only help the skater.
“He was off (in PyeongChang); I watched him practice, and he wasn’t on his game. He was out of sync,” Hamilton said. “Then, after he won the free skate, I asked him, ‘What changed?’ And he said, ‘Well, I figured I was out of it, and I didn’t give a (darn). I am just going to skate.’ And I think that now, he can bring that attitude with him for the entire Games. He knows he has the goods.”
Nathan Chen attends the in-store shopping event benefiting Gold House at David Yurman on Sept. 25, 2021 in Costa Mesa, California.
There is one potential pitfall, Hamilton warns: the media.
“He is going to get questions like, ‘You haven’t lost in three years, how does it feel coming in here, where anything less than gold will be looked at as a loss?’” says Hamilton, who also entered his Olympic Games as reigning three-time world champion. “There is no way you can think about that in any way that can help you compete well. It turns into a micro-analysis of what it will take to lose. … Nathan should avoid the media as much as he can, especially after he gets to Beijing.”
Chen seems to agree. In the six months since his most recent competition, the World Team Trophy in Osaka, Japan, he has kept a relatively low profile, granting few interviews and posting sparingly on social media.
He made an exception last month, hosting an event at a jewelry boutique in Costa Mesa, California, to present a silver and onyx bracelet he created in partnership with David Yurman. From Sept. 15, 2021 through Feb. 28, 2022, 20% of the bracelets’ purchase price will be donated to Gold House, a nonprofit collective of Asian creative voices and leaders dedicated to unifying to fight for authentic multicultural representation and societal equity.
Gold House’s initiatives include funding organizations to combat violence against Asian Americans. A child of immigrants — his parents moved to the U.S. from China in 1988 — Chen has spoken out about increased violence towards Asian communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m disgusted by the amount of hate and violence that has occurred (against) Asian Americans in the U.S., it’s just unacceptable,” he told reporters at worlds last season. “It’s really tough to see as an Asian American.”
Chen, like Hanyu, has yet to compete this season. His first event will be Skate America, held Oct. 22-24 in Las Vegas, where his toughest competition will likely come from 2018 Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan, as well as Vincent Zhou, who has placed second to Chen three times at the U.S. Championships. A week later, he heads to Skate Canada in Vancouver, British Columbia, where 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown will also compete.
Chen’s first test against Hanyu and rising Japanese star Yuma Kagiyama, the reigning world silver medalist, could come at the Grand Prix Final, held Dec. 9-12 in Osaka, Japan. In early January, he will be the odds-on favorite to win a sixth consecutive U.S. title. And as he told reporters last season, he is taking nothing for granted.
“Every competition is different, every competition is challenging, and it has its own challenges for every athlete,” he said. “I’m excited to take it step by step. I think that with anything, if I try to take things in bites that are too big, I’ll end up choking a little bit.”