On the eve of his first world championships, Nathan Chen isn’t going to make any Olympic predictions.
“I guess it could be,” the 17-year-old said when asked if this week’s World Figure Skating Championships was a “stepping stone” to next year’s Olympic Games.
“This is the first worlds I’ve been to, so it’s already a big stepping stone for me to be at my first world championships and competing against everyone together in one event. … But a lot can change, as you’ve seen with me, in the course of a year.”
A year ago, Chen went from breakout star to a season-ending injury in the same week.
Chen enjoyed his breakout performance when he earned a bronze medal at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But just hours after he became the first American figure skater to perform two quads in a short program and four in a free skate, he aggravated an old hip injury during an exhibition and had to undergo surgery.
No one — not even Chen — expected this season to unfold as it has. He earned a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in December and then won the 2017 U.S. men’s championship, after which he won the 2017 Four Continents Championships.
It isn’t just that Chen is winning, however. It’s that he’s propelling the sport’s technical demands forward with record-setting numbers of quad jumps in both short programs and free skates. In winning the Four Continents competition, he landed five quads in his free skate, the most ever for any man in an international competition.
So what does the Salt Lake City native have planned for world championships in Helsinki this week?
“This is my first worlds, and of course, you know, being able to make the podium would be huge,” he said with his trademark matter-of-fact assessment. “I’ve had a pretty good second half of the season, nationals and Four Continents.”
Chen said he knows he has the technical skill to earn a spot on the podium — even among the world’s best figure skaters. But he’s unwilling to commit to just what he might unveil when the medals are actually on the line. He also said he expects the other skaters to bring their very best to this weekend's competition, and that might dictate what he needs to do if he wants to earn a spot on the podium.
“It just really depends on what they do and how clean I’m able to perform,” he said.
It also depends on how his body responds after he said “boot issues” kept him from training quad jumps for a few days last week.
“It was causing me not to have the most productive sessions,” he said.
Chen declined to discuss the boot issue in much detail, but did say he was having his skates repaired rather than replaced. Right now, his plan is to compete with eight triples — five in the free skate and three in the short program.
Chen seems blissfully unaware of how his increasingly impressive results should impact him mentally.
“It’s definitely, I guess, motivational,” he said of being considered a favorite heading into Helsinki. “But it’s also something I don’t want to think about too much. And I don’t want to add any negative pressure, although this isn’t necessarily negative pressure for me. It’s a good push for me.”
While others skaters are making choices based on everything from recovering from injuries to what they hope to accomplish at next year’s Winter Games, Chen’s focus is on an experience he’s never had.
“This has been one of my longest seasons,” he said. “Usually by junior worlds I’d be done. That’s been my whole skating career. It’s a new experience for me to learn how to pace myself and push myself, build and recover and all that.”
Meanwhile, he said the media attention isn’t much of a distraction for him because he’s so focused on what he believes he can accomplish on his first world championship stage.
“I haven’t really been in that situation before,” he said. “But I have my own goals, my own focuses, so those things shouldn’t really be a distraction to me.”
While every other competitor sees Chen as a game-changer who is pushing the boundaries of what athletes and coaches saw as possible just two years ago, he said he never saw this as his future.
“I didn’t really think (about quads), even as a junior skater,” he said, “until about two years ago.”
He said he saw athletes landing three quads in a program when he was still struggling to consistently land triple axles.
“I never really saw an end to where we could take jumps,” he said. “I never thought that I would be doing the stuff I’m doing.”
At 15, he landed his first quad toe, and a few weeks later, the quad Salchow was next.
“I thought I could do more, but then I got injured,” Chen said. “Two years ago, I thought this was the direction I would have to go so I’ve been striving for it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. And it’s history that Chen hopes to re-write with another historic performance in Finland.