It has been about 15 years since a little boy growing up in Salt Lake City, the youngest of five children, decided he wanted to figure skate. His family didn’t have the money to buy him skates of his own, so he wore his older sister’s white hand-me-downs.
When he outgrew them, the boy’s father had an idea. He had heard of a foundation being run by three-time national champion and two-time U.S. Olympian Michael Weiss that gave money to up-and-coming skaters. The man’s son was too young to apply for any of Weiss’ scholarships, but Weiss said he’d help out anyway, giving the family $200 to pay for the boy’s first pair of skates.
Over the next 10 years, as the boy started showing remarkable progress, Weiss’ foundation kept sending money to help keep him in the sport, about $75,000 in all.
It made sense. Figure skating and Nathan Chen were not going to part ways anytime soon.
Retelling this story after winning his second consecutive U.S. figure skating national championship last month, Chen, 18, couldn’t help but smile.
“Michael gave me money to kick-start my young career,” Chen said. “Honestly, without that, it would be impossible for me to get to where I am now.”
And where exactly is that? On the verge of something quite remarkable. A once-in-a-generation talent, a prodigious athlete and a well-trained artist, Chen is the only undefeated male figure skater in the world this season. He heads to Pyeongchang as a favorite for a medal, perhaps even gold, if his luck and his landings hold on that slippery sheet of ice.
“Sometimes thinking about the Olympics makes me a little nervous,” Chen said. “It’s something I have to remind myself about, that at every competition, I put a lot of pressure on myself, almost like it’s the end of the world, and I have to keep reminding myself it’s not. Ultimately, I try to enjoy the moment, and every time I enjoy myself out there, I skate my best when I feel happy and I let those pressures fall down beside me.”
Chen’s ascension through the ranks has been spectacularly steady. He was a two-time novice champion at the time of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, then a two-time junior champion around the 2014 Sochi Games, with a smattering of international medals as well. He was a fixture in Weiss’ foundation skating show each year in the Washington, D.C., area, drawing delighted applause from the crowd. This kid was most definitely on his way.
It was just two years ago that he won his first senior (Olympic level) national medal, a bronze in the 2016 men’s U.S. championship.
He became the first American man to land two quadruple jumps in the short program and the first skater in the world to land four quads in a long program. But later that day, in the skating exhibition, he injured his left hip during a triple jump and had to undergo surgery, his season finished. It was as if the skating gods were saying, slow down, young man.
“It was back to the drawing board,” Chen said.
“From a life standpoint, I was a little behind on all of my schoolwork so it got me back on track. I was able to reflect on what I’ve done and appreciate all that is yet to come.”
He returned with a vengeance, becoming the first man in international skating history to land five quadruple jumps in one 41/2-minute long program at the 2017 national championships. He also did two quads in his short program. That’s what he did to win the 2018 nationals as well and qualify for the Olympics, and it’s what he is planning to do at the Games.
The significance of these statistics can be lost on the casual observer, so consider this: Just eight years ago in Vancouver, American Evan Lysacek won the Olympic gold medal without trying even one quad.
But it’s not just about the jumps for Chen. Figure skating demands artistry as well, and this is where Chen’s unique childhood plays a significant role. At age 7, he entered Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City. There, he took lessons, sometimes as many as six a week, for more than six years. His refined movements on ice today can be traced back to those formative days in the ballet studio. It’s this exquisite package of powerful jumps and elegant artistry that makes Chen such a force heading into the Olympics.
“It’s amazing that he’s able to be so precise with his jumping and his quads and still have the style that he does right now,” said 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano. “This guy can step up to the plate and deliver, I truly believe that.”
Unlike most young skaters who just want to jump, Chen cares deeply about his choreography and presentation. For the Olympic season, he decided to work with renowned choreographer Lori Nichol for his long program.
One day in late May 2017, Nichol received a text message.
It was Chen, telling Nichol he had arrived in Toronto to start working with her.
Problem was, she didn’t have him on her schedule until the next day. He had arrived a day early.
“That’s a first in my career,” Nichol said with a laugh.
Deep inside that youthful body, there’s an old soul. “As I’m getting older,” Chen said, “my skating career won’t last forever. At most, I’ll be skating eight more years, and there’s a lot of things outside of skating that I want to do, including college.”
There’s something else too. What Weiss did for him, he’d like to do for someone else.
“That’s something I’m actually very interested in doing, helping young skaters,” Chen said. “What Michael did definitely inspires me to follow a similar path. I would love to do that someday.”
Skating’s jumps and spins are all about complete revolutions, going all the way around. Full circle, in other words.
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