Family is huge, with any success in sport. —Nathan Chen
Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the 12th in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nathan Chen takes the ice alone Friday morning (Thursday at 6 p.m. MST) at Gangneung Ice Arena, but the accomplishment of competing for an Olympic medal doesn’t belong just to him.
The 18-year-old Salt Lake native and two-time national champion will have to land his seven planned quadruple jumps, but he would not be the game-changing skater whose made himself a gold-medal contender without the care, support and instruction of dozens of people he’ll carry in his heart as he competes Friday and Saturday in Pyeongchang.
From childhood figure skating coaches to ballet instructors to his family, who will be in the packed stands cheering him on, all played a part in getting him to this point.
“Family is huge, with any success in sport,” he said. “My mom has been there from day one and has been by my side, even until now. The rest of my family has always supported all of my dreams. They put a lot into me, tried to help me as much as they could, regardless of anything going on in their lives.”
Any moment he earns is not his alone.
“I’m so excited they’ll be there," he said. "It’s a big moment for me, but also a big moment for my family.”
Chen’s jumping ability propelled him to the top of his sport in a very short time. He went from relative obscurity three years ago to producing an undefeated international season capped by his second national championship, where he completed a program with seven quadruple jumps. He won in San Jose, California, in January by 41 points, an astounding margin by any measure.
He revels in the reality of reaching a dream he has been pursuing for as long as he can remember, but even in his playful moments he remains laser focused on the competition that begins with Friday’s short program.
“I’m going into this competition like it’s any other,” he said. “I know there will be a lot of attention, for sure. And I know I’ve never experienced it. But I want to try and block out the rest of the noise, and focus personally on skating.”
As reporters remind him that there is no stage bigger, no spotlight hotter, he persists.
“I think everything outside the actual programs themselves will be very different,” he acknowledged. “And I don’t actually know what that is yet, I’ll see it as it comes along. But as soon as I’m on the ice, doing the programs I’m planning to do, it will be the same as any other competition. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Those who know Chen best — and those who’ve known him longest — are not surprised by his approach or his maturity.
“To be honest, I’m not surprised he made it,” said Karel Kovar, who, along with his wife Amanda, coached Chen until he was 9. “He’s so driven, he always has been. He’s always liked learning new steps and jumps and movements. He loves challenges. He’s incredibly self-driven.”
He echoed Nathan’s sentiments about his mother.
“I don’t think he would be where he is today without his mom,” said Kovar, who still coaches figure skating in Utah. “She’s dedicated her life to this young man. She brought him to skating, worked with him off the ice, just brought him everywhere he needed to go, got him to everything he needed to do.”
Growing up, Chen wasn’t just a figure skater. He participated in Ballet West’s Academy, and he plays piano. He even played hockey for a time.
“And the whole family plays chess,” Kovar said with a laugh. “Basically, anything he touched, he was awesome at it.”
Chen was asked what he might say to his former instructors at Ballet West, where he said he learned “how to position my arms, how to create a line” while developing jaw-dropping athleticism in his jumps.
“Really, I just thank them, every single person that I’ve worked with in the past, whether it be on the ice or in the ballet studio, they really put a lot of time into getting to every kid's needs and respecting them as best they can,” he said. “Ballet and skating go hand in hand, especially growing up at Ballet West, which is an incredible academy. The techniques there were impeccable. It allowed me to adapt from different styles, from pop to contemporary to very classical ballet.”
He hopes his former coaches and instructors will be watching when he skates for Olympic glory.
“I am hoping they feel proud of the work that they put in because one of their kids was able to come to the Olympics. I am hoping they’ll be able to watch, and I thank them.”
When the men’s Olympic figure skating champion is crowned Saturday (Friday night in Utah), it will be the Chinese New Year, and coincidentally, both Chen and his 17-year-old teammate, Vincent Zhou, are the children of Chinese immigrants.
“I didn’t even think about that honestly, but that’s really cool actually,” Chen said. “Honestly, I’m very proud to be going to the Olympics to represent Team USA as a Chinese American. It’s kind of cool that there are two Chinese Americans in the men’s event. I don’t think that’s been done before, and that, in and of itself, is a big honor.”
Chen will not be the only skater attempting multiple quads, as several other competitors will challenge Chen’s title as the quad king. But there is no doubt that Chen has been the most consistent in landing the difficult but thrilling tricks, while maintaining the artistry that has always defined figure skating.
But Chen doesn’t insert himself into debates about how many quads are too many and whether the scoring favors failed quads over subjective artistry. He simply wants to do what he loves, his way.
“I watch what the other guys are doing, but at the end of the day, I’m going to be on the ice by myself,” he said. “Throughout the season, we know what other people will do, but we each have to find our own approach.”