After an impressive short program in the team figure skating event, Team USA’s Nathan Chen is ready to skate for the one individual medal missing from his collection—an Olympic one.
The 22-year-old, who trains in southern California, is perfectly capable of accomplishing that feat. He is widely regarded as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of figure skating—he’s a six-time national champion, three-time world champion, and holds multiple records for being the first to land various quadruple jumps at major competitions. The only skater he lost to since 2018—fellow Team USA skater Vincent Zhou—withdrew from the Olympics after testing positive for COVID-19.
Which sets Chen up for a highly-anticipated skate-off starting Feb. 8 at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium against Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning back-to-back Olympic champion who’s hoping for a third-straight gold. Hanyu has had fans and the Japanese media on edge by his absence in Beijing—he only arrived on Feb. 6, two days before his event, and has not competed all season in order to recover from a right ankle ligament injury.
And Hanyu arrived in Beijing preparing to make history by becoming the first skater to land a quadruple axel. Should he succeed, Hanyu will have an advantage given the jump’s high base points value.
But Chen has his own arsenal of quads—and perspective. It wasn’t easy an easy journey for Chen, who was also a medal favorite heading into Pyeongchang—but failed to even make the podium. Since then, he has put in work on the ice, and off it. He enrolled at Yale University since the last Olympics. He’s armed with a short program that showcases his connection with music. He’s practicing mindfulness.
“It certainly feels different this time,” he tells TIME. “I grew a lot over the past four years, and I’ve been dreaming and looking forward to the moment when I could make this team.”
Nathan Chen’s rollercoaster Olympics debut
The last time Chen competed at the Olympics, however, he admits he probably wasn’t quite ready for what awaited him.
“After U.S. championships when the Olympic team was announced, and I was expecting to make the team, and I didn’t feel the same sense of excitement that I should have,” Chen says of his mentality in 2018. “I almost felt a sense of dread, and fear, and as soon as the Olympic team was announced, I thought ‘Oh my gosh it’s what I wanted but I don’t know if I’m ready for it.’ That doubt and fear continued to creep in over the month heading to the Games, and it all culminated in the two short programs that I had.”
Those programs were a shock to not just Chen but also to skating and Olympic fans as well. Heading into the Olympics, Chen had been building up his dossier. He is the first male figure skater to land seven quadruple jumps in a single competition, at the U.S. National Championships in 2017, and the first to complete five quadruple jumps in an international competition, in that same year. He was expected to do the same at the Olympics.
Then he took to the ice to perform his short program in the team event. And doubled one of his jumps and fell on the next one.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I knew I had the opportunity to potentially win,” he says. “I had the technical ability to theoretically get myself on the podium, if not win. And having the mentality that I was going there just to get a medal was just too much for me.”
After making mistakes in his second short program days later in the men’s individual event, Chen was in 17th place before the free program. He returned to his room in the Village and lay in bed until his next event. “I didn’t think much, or do much. Everyone knew what happened, and where I was in the competition.” At that point, he says, he changed his mentality and decided to go for broke. Since a medal wasn’t on the line anymore, the free program was a chance to compete free of any pressures or expectations. “That was the whole idea—I literally had no chance for a medal, and no chance to win. So I might as well use the opportunity the best I can, and try to skate to the best of my abilities,” he says. “From there I realized, ‘Hey, I was still at the Olympics and that’s pretty incredible.”
That mindset made all the difference. Chen won the free skate competition, with a breathtaking attempt at six quadruple jumps that earned him a personal best score.
A shift heading into Beijing
It’s that lesson that Chen has carried with him over the last four years. Chen appreciates the importance of having time to pursue things other than skating, and of incorporating mindfulness and meditation techniques as well. Enrolling in classes at Yale has also helped; while he’s taken the past two years off to prepare for the Olympics, putting himself in a different environment where he had priorities other than skating has helped to manage the pressure and expectations that overwhelmed him in 2018. “I loved having the time in school, and it was really great for me to have a new life I hadn’t experienced before,” he says. “Having hobbies and things to do that are not necessarily skating-related to keep me active and engaged also helps.”
Music is a big part of that for him; Chen has played the piano since he was young, and picked up the guitar as a teen after his older brother started playing. He’s even contemplated skating to music he and his brother have recorded; “we were thinking it would be cool to do something with me playing the piano and my brother playing the guitar—maybe for a show program at some point,” he says.
His comfort with the music for his programs is also a big part of his confidence entering this Olympics. After creating two new programs for this momentous year, and competing with them last fall, Chen decided to return to the short and free programs he skated in the 2019-2020 season, when the world championships were canceled. The fact that he lost his first competition since 2018, to teammate Vincent Zhou at Skate America in 2021, contributed to that decision, as did the fact that his two previous programs earned him his highest scores yet. Because he connected with those programs, and did not have the chance to skate them at that event, Chen decided to tweak them a bit and bring both programs back for Beijing.
“At the end of the day, all programs have similar content in terms of elements,” he says. “It just comes down to how well you connect with the music, and that’s a big part of your score. If I’m able to feel that I can connect to a program, it’s a lot easier, a lot less forced and more organic and natural for me to interpret the program and skate.”
Shae-Lynn Bourne, an Olympic ice dance medalist for Canada, who now works as a choreographer, created the short program that Chen revived. Bourne keeps a running playlist of music that she feels will appeal to the skaters she works with, and when she heard Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” she thought it would be a good choice for Chen. It offered an opportunity to showcase the emotional side of his skating, since he was so known for his technical skill and his quad jumps. “The passion of that song, and the way it’s performed, with such soul and truth, I felt it would be something new for Nathan to show his charisma,” says Bourne. “I felt he could express it and through his movement bring that spirit of the song to life in front of us, so he doesn’t make us think that at any moment a jump is coming.”
Because of the truncated 2019-2020 season, Chen felt he didn’t have closure on the program, since skaters build-up to the world championships every year. “Given the pandemic, I wasn’t able to compete at Worlds, so having another opportunity to finish that second half of that season means a lot,” he says.
Chen’s program is packed with technical content designed to push him to the top of the podium. One change that he, Bourne and his coach Rafael Arutunian made was to shift his major jump combination, the quadruple Lutz-triple toe, to the second half of the program so he can earn bonus points.
Nathan Chen’s Olympic ice comeback
It appears to be paying off. In the Beijing Olympics team event, Chen performed a technically challenging and passionate short program. He landed a textbook quadruple flip as well as a quadruple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and earned him a personal best score of 111.71, just shy of Hanyu’s record in the event of 111.82.
More importantly, he finally shook off the questions surrounding his ability to perform under pressure.
Chen’s return to Olympic ice in that team event short program was also a statement—to himself and to the world—that he is on track to earn what the skating world feels he deserves, an Olympic medal. “I learned from my 2018 experience that for myself, when it comes time to skate, that I’m 100% locked on my skating. As soon as I’m off the ice, and not engaged in skating, I need to do things to distract myself which for me is playing guitar and my other hobbies, and spending time with my family and friends,” he says.
Adam Rippon, who trained with Chen for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and now coaches at the same rink, sees that change in Chen as well. “I think what really helped him is that as a person, he explored different things he enjoys, like going to school, and taking classes,” he says. “As an athlete, you can think that you’re only good at one thing, and if you can’t do it, you must be garbage and that you shouldn’t be here. But when you learn that you can be good at other things, you are more empowered.”
That will certainly help Chen as he faces Hanyu, since the reigning Olympic gold medalist hasn’t stood still either. Hanyu is hoping to land that quadruple axel; he attempted the jump at the Japanese national championships in December, his first competition this season, but landed on two feet so it was downgraded to a triple Axel. If he lands it in his free program, not only will he make history as the first skater to land the jump, but he will also have a huge points advantage as the jump has the highest base value of 12.5 points.
Both Chen and Hanyu are being chased by skaters who are capable of beating them if either falters. Japan’s Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama could also be spoilers who break the Chen-Hanyu juggernaut; Uno’s near-perfect short program and Kagiyama’s spectacular free during the team event laid down the gauntlet for the favorites. Chen is taking it all in stride, however. Rather than allowing that pressure to weigh him down, he’s reminding himself to enjoy every moment and appreciate the opportunity and experiences skating is gifting to him. “I’m excited to learn new things at this competition, and experience things I haven’t before,” he says.
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