Nathan Chen didn’t set out to push the evolution of the sport he loves.
The 17-year-old Salt Lake City native just enjoys the athletic and mental challenge of figure skating’s most difficult aspect — jumps.
“Jumping has just always kind of been the thing I love,” said Chen, who became the youngest U.S. man to medal at an ISU Grand Prix competition on Nov. 26. His silver medal qualified him for the Grand Prix Final Dec. 8-11 in Marseille, France, in just his first senior grand prix season.
Chen set a new American record for highest score in a short program (92.85) when he landed both a quad lutz, which he did in combination with a triple toe, and a quad flip. When Chen landed both of those quad jumps, it was the first time both had been successfully landed in history.
“I never really thought about going after it as a signature thing,” he said. “I just thought it was cool. … I loved the athletic side of skating.”
|Nathan Chen looks on after competing in the men's free skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 24, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
More and more male figure skaters are competing with — and landing — quad jumps, and that’s in part because the ISU changed the judging system to make the risk more rewarding. The change has led to something of a quad race as athletes try to keep up with the athletic feats of one another.
Among the leaders is Chen, who likely wouldn’t have ever tried figure skating if the 2002 Olympic Winter Games hadn’t been hosted by his hometown.
“My sisters (who were figure skaters) were in the Opening Ceremony, and I spent a lot of time around the rink,” he said. “My brothers played hockey, and I really wanted to play hockey. My mom thought figure skates looked easier to use, so she put me in a learn to skate program.”
Chen is the youngest of five children, and he said he was so young (3 years old) that he doesn’t remember much about his introduction to the sport.
“I guess I literally just stood there,” he said. “I guess I must have enjoyed it eventually.”
Chen said his learn-to-skate instructor also offered private lessons, and she approached his mother about getting him private instruction. By the time he started elementary school, figure skating was enmeshed in his life and identity.
“It was something that was just a part of me,” he said. “Everyone knew I was a figure skater.”
He said because most people don’t know much about the sport, and because “I wasn’t that good at first,” he didn’t feel his participation in the sport made him stand out among his peers.
“I am grateful I was able to be a normal kid,” he said.
That changed, however, as soon as he started having success on a national stage, winning two novice and two junior U.S. titles in the course of five years.
Not only did he move to California to train a few years ago, but he’s also transitioned to online high school the past three years.
“It’s alright,” Chen said. “I’d prefer to be going to a public school, to be honest. But it serves its purpose.”
He hopes to take a “gap” year after graduating this spring. But unlike most teens who take a year off between high school and college to relax, travel or save money, Chen hopes to be competing in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. College, he says, is the plan after that.
The Winter Games, meanwhile, are a newer goal for the humble, articulate teen.
“Not until very recently,” he said of when he thought the Olympics might be within reach. “It’s always been a dream for me, but it was never a plan until I reached a point where I’m competitive among top U.S. men.”
He’s relishing this year’s success even more because he suffered an injury that required surgery for the first time in his career. At the U.S. championships in January, he became the first American skater to do two quads in a short program and four quads in a free skate, and his third-place finish qualified him for the U.S. team for the world championships, but the injury he suffered during his exhibition program later that night stole that opportunity.
“It was a little bit difficult,” he said. “I pushed it and made the world team, and then, three hours later, ‘Oh, just kidding, you didn’t make it.’”
He spent more than five months away from the ice recovering, but said he came back physically and mentally stronger and more determined to find success on the ice.
Chen said he still has a lot of work to do this season if he wants to have the opportunity to compete for Olympic gold.
“This is the season where it’s become a more realistic goal,” he said. “The grand prix (success), for sure, and being one of the top six skaters competing in the Final. … It seemed like I belong.”
He said there is a lot of skating that will decide which men will represent Team USA in PyeongChang, and he believes he can continue to learn and improve not just his athleticism (maybe more quads?) but his artistry. With a background in ballet, Chen said he sees each competition as a chance to develop his skating skills and increase his confidence.
“If all goes well,” Chen said of the competitions that could lead him to this season’s world championships, “that’s a step closer to the Olympics for me.”