It's kind of cool to be considered (in that group of competitors), and I never thought I'd get there this fast. At the same time, I have a lot of things I want to improve on. But it is cool to be included. —Nathan Chen
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nathan Chen hasn’t graduated high school yet, but the 17-year-old Salt Lake City native is already intimately familiar with the euphoria and the cruelty of world-class competition.
In one year’s time, Chen gave his breakout performance when he earned bronze at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships as the first American skater to perform two quad jumps in a short program and four quads in the free skate. Before he could relish what he’d accomplished, he aggravated an old hip injury in a post-competition exhibition performance and lost his spot on the World Championship team and five months on the ice.
“It was disappointing that I missed worlds,” Chen said in a teleconference a few days before he competes as the favorite at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships that begin Saturday, Jan. 14. “I didn’t really bring me down too much, though. It was sort of motivating me to push myself back up.”
Maybe most disappointing for Chen was the fact that he’d pushed through the pain of the hip injury to make the World Championship team, earned his spot and then lost it to the reality that his body required surgery to heal.
“It is really difficult being injured,” he said. “Being able to overcome that, it definitely makes you stronger, makes you reflect on the times on the ice, allows you to pinpoint what exactly made this happen. ...And I spent a lot of time thinking about skating without actually skating.” Chen spent five months away from the ice, something he hasn’t done since he was in elementary school. He said that when he came back, his body was stronger and he retained his ability to do what very few men have been able to do in the world – consistently land multiple quads in every program.
In fact, his jumping ability has not only earned him fans, praise and the respect of judges – it’s helped him make history. He became the second youngest Grand Prix medalist ever when he earned silver at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Marseille France on in December. In earning second place, he landed four quadruple jumps and earned the highest score of a U.S. male skater in history with a 197.55.
Chen admits to a continued struggle with nerves and he’s sought help infusing more artistry into his performances. Recently, however, he felt the need to seek the coach who’s guided him technically as he said he wants to have options when it comes to putting quadruple jumps into his programs that can change to accommodate his needs and consider challenges from competitors.
“I’ve been working on all of my quads, including my loop for the past two weeks,” he said during the conference call. “I’ve thought about different program plans, and it depends how my body is, if anything is hurting, or if I need to really push all out relative to how I am before worlds.”
Chen said being sidelined for five months taught him a lot about himself, but also something about training, recovery and strategy.
“I distracted myself with other things,” he said of how difficult it was to watch worlds while recovering. “Luckily I have a lot of school work, so I buried myself in school work and tried not to worry about skating too much. From a logistical standpoint, I learned about when to peak, when to push, when to recover throughout the season. That was probably the most important.”
Reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon just withdrew from this weekend’s U.S. Championships after he broke his left foot and sprained his left ankle during an off-ice warm-up last Friday. That leaves the door wide open for Chen, but he isn’t taking anything for granted, meticulously discussing how and what he’s been working on in preparation for the competition in Kansas City.
The youngest of five children, Chen said he likely wouldn’t have taken up figure skating had his sisters not skated in the 2002 Olympics Opening Ceremony when Salt Lake hosted the Winter Games.
“I really wanted to play hockey,” he said in an interview last month. “My mom thought figure skates looked easier to use, so she put me in the learn to skate program.”
He was just three when he took that class and admits he doesn’t remember much.
“I guess I must have enjoyed it eventually,” he said laughing. Teachers immediately told his mother that he had talent, and very quickly, he began taking private lessons. He said he’s almost grateful his career is peaking now instead of earlier because he’s been able to enjoy a pretty “normal” life.
As soon as he started winning junior and novice competitions, the pressure to push harder and aim higher put normal teenage concerns like prom and dating on the back burner. There are upsides, he admits, as he is not only considered the favorite in the men’s competition at this weekend’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but he’s also a contender on the world stage, which makes his Olympic dreams realistic possibilities. He is modest when discussing the possibilities of an Olympic medal in his future.
“It depends on what happens in these next few months,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to be considered (in that group of competitors), and I never thought I’d get there this fast. At the same time, I have a lot of things I want to improve on. But it is cool to be included.”