Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship at Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 24, 2016 in St. Paul, Minn.
Nearly a year after suffering a serious hip injury, Nathan Chen looks as good as ever. Even better than ever.
At 17, Chen has been stunning in his comeback from surgery and rehabilitation. He goes into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week in Kansas City, Missouri, as the favorite to win the men’s title.
It’s a big step up from a year ago, when it was unknown how Chen — in his first year in senior competition after a brilliant novice and junior career — would perform on a bigger stage at the U.S. championships in St. Paul, Minnesota. The answer: just fine.
Chen, from Salt Lake City, is known for his athleticism. He landed two quadruple jumps in his short program and then completed four more in the free skate to finish third. No U.S. skater ever had landed so many, and he was just 16.
|Nathan Chen competes in the men's short program at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship at Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 22, 2016 in St. Paul, Minn.
But that night, after winning bronze, Chen was injured while participating in the exhibition of top skaters. He suffered an avulsion injury to his left hip, meaning a portion of bone was torn away. Surgery repaired the damage, but Chen then had to go through weeks of rest and rehabilitation and miss the world championships in Boston.
Since returning to competition over the second half of 2016, Chen has been on a roll.
He won the Finlandia Trophy in Finland and was second at the NHK Trophy in Japan before finishing second at the ISU Grand Prix Final in December in France. His silver at the NHK Trophy was the first Grand Prix podium finish of his career, and it made him the youngest U.S. men’s skater to medal at a grand prix event. Chen then became the second-youngest man ever to medal at a Grand Prix Final, finishing second only to 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
So after coming into last year’s U.S. championships as untested at the senior level, Chen now enters as the favorite for gold and perhaps a candidate for the podium at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. But he says he feels no additional expectations and he’s taking nothing for granted.
“I feel like I’m in a good position going into nationals,” he said on a conference call with reporters last week. “At the same time, my programs do have a lot of difficulty and a lot of risks, so little things can happen and things might not go exactly the way that I want them to. So it’s basically … it’s trying to hone in to eliminate those risks of error that will cause me to not have the results I want to achieve. But I don’t think I’m under pressure now. I don’t really feel that.”
Plus, Chen says he’s not going to force anything in his preparation. He’s not going to feel compelled to put in four or five quads into his free skate, for instance, if it’s not necessary. He could decide to wait until the Four Continents in South Korea in February or the world championships in Finland in March and April.
But he acknowledges his grand prix performances in Japan and France have put a spotlight on him in Kansas City.
“My trainer was basically explaining, like, after you have certain things like this you have to expect more media attention, more just attention in general,” Chen said. “And so he kind of like prepared me for that. At the same time it’s like trying to not stress out about that, not try to avoid it, but not be too overwhelmed by it, and I really haven’t been.
“It’s been nice, something that I really haven’t had before, so it’s something that I’m trying not to freak out about.”
Since coming back from injury, Chen has worked with his trainer to come up with new warm-up and cool-down routines and strength-and-conditioning programs to help him avoid injuries such as the one he experienced last year. At the time, Chen had said that perhaps he hadn’t warmed up sufficiently between his long program and the exhibition. Now, he’s trying to better prepare while also paying more attention to his body. If he feels the slightest discomfort, he has it checked.
“Honestly, last season the hip injury that I had was almost unavoidable,” he said. He believes it could have happened at any time.
Now Chen has a lot in front of him including this week’s event, the world championships and the following U.S. championships that will serve as the final decider for the Olympic team in South Korea.
When he was asked if could win a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Games, he said it’s possible, but there is still too much work to be done. That fact he’s pushed himself into the competition, however, is nice.
“Yeah, it’s kind of cool,” he said. “I never really thought about it. I never thought it would get here that fast. At the same time, I have a lot of things that I want to improve on.”
The men’s short program is set for Friday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, with the free skate Sunday afternoon.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.