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Nathan And Karen Chen Leading The Way For An Asian-American Resurgence In Figure Skating

By Nick McCarvel | May 25, 2017, 3:44 p.m. (ET)

Nathan and Karen Chen won their first national titles at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January 2017.


U.S. figure skaters Karen Chen and Nathan Chen share a last name and similar Chinese-American backgrounds, and this January they had respective breakout performances at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, winning maiden national titles a year before the Olympic season.

Their wins – for Karen, 16, and Nathan, who turned 18 earlier this month – were also historic for another reason: It marked the first time that both singles champions at nationals were of Asian descent.

“I did not know that. I think that’s really cool,” a surprised Nathan Chen said in a phone interview earlier this week. “We come from a similar background and both our parents went through a lot to give us the opportunity to skate and help us be successful. I think what Karen and I represent is everything that our parents stand for and how they raised us.”

With May being Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, the success of Karen Chen and Nathan Chen highlight a continued – and growing – trend for U.S. skaters with Asian backgrounds. The minority population is building quite the repertoire at the elite level.

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“It’s been fun to see the growth of Asian-Americans in skating,” said Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, who is of Japanese heritage. “These athletes get to go and compete internationally. Being a role model for Asian-American athletes is something looking back now that I hopefully was able to do.”

Maia and Alex Shibutani compete in their free dance at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 at Iceberg Skating Palace on Feb. 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Both Chens (the two skaters are not related) affirm that Yamaguchi was someone they looked up to (Karen grew up in the same town as Yamaguchi in Fremont, California), while also pointing to another Asian-American figure skating superstar – Michelle Kwan – as being a childhood hero.

Kwan is the single most decorated U.S. skater of all time, having won nine individual national titles, Olympic silver and bronze medals and a total of five world titles between 1996 and 2005.

“As a young kid, I remember watching Michelle’s performances and her competitions over and over and over again,” Karen Chen said. “I was in awe with what she could do. I felt so inspired. It helped inspire me as a shy kid. It was hard. My family was very encouraging. I just kept doing it.”

It’s not just Karen and Nathan that are representing the Asian-American population at the top of U.S. figure skating right now, however. Maia and Alex Shibutani won their second straight ice dance national title in January, while Madison Chock – who has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry – won silver in the same discipline alongside partner Evan Bates.

In fact, 15 of the top 38 U.S. skaters in the men’s and women’s singles elite program this season were of Asian background, 39 percent of the total. In comparison, less than six percent of the total U.S. population is Asian-American.

“There are so many good Asian skaters right now,” Nathan Chen said, also noting the international renaissance of Asian men – like Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu – on the global stage. “Asian kids know now that they can have the possibility to skate. I think that’s really cool for them to have that.”

Mirai Nagasu was U.S. champion in 2008 at the age of 14 and nearly a decade later continues to make her mark at the elite level, having won bronze at the prominent Four Continents Championships in February.

Along with Karen Chen and Nagasu, Caroline Zhang, Angela Wang and Tessa Hong were top-10 finishers at the U.S. championships in January in Kansas City, Missouri, in the women’s event. Vincent Zhou, meanwhile, was a silver medalist behind Nathan Chen for the men, and in March won the junior world title, announcing his Olympic chances in full-throated fashion at the age of 16.

“They are all such fresh faces,” Yamaguchi said of the teens’ successes. “We’ve all had fun watching them develop as young skaters. Now they’re here. It’s great.”

Mirai Nagasu acknowledges the crowd during the medal ceremony at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.

Mervin Tran, whose parents are of Cambodian and Vietnamese descent, won the silver medal in pairs at the U.S. championships alongside partner Marissa Castelli.

Known for his programs that feature multiple quadruple jumps, Nathan Chen said he was drawn to the sport initially by the jumping prowess of Russian Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko. His mother, however, was a massive Kwan fan, oftentimes – as a young lady – finding a TV in China to squeeze in time to watch Kwan skate.

It’s the sacrifices of their parents – who have various stories of immigration and challenging obstacles – that the skaters are most thankful for in a sport that has mostly welcomed them with open arms.

“I think my parents felt us being a minority a little bit more than I did, and they tried to shelter me from that so I didn’t feel it at all,” Nathan Chen explained. He then added, laughing: “On the ice as a kid, I was the only male skater in a group of 50 girls. That was maybe the only thing I was self-conscious about. (But) as I got older, there were more and more Asian kids at competitions that I was going to – that felt cool to me.”

What’s cool is the historic feat that he and Karen Chen pulled off this past January, and something they hope to emulate next year when the skaters descend on San Jose, California, for nationals, which will serve as the final Olympic qualifying event ahead of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in South Korea.

“We want to inspire as many people as possible,” Karen Chen said of her goals. “In this case, our audience is young Asian-American kids.”

Kwan served as that for many young Asians and beyond. At a recent figure skating gala event in New York City, every skater present – including Olympic medalists Meryl Davis, Ashley Wagner and the Shibutanis (as well as former U.S. champion Adam Rippon) – named Kwan as the skater they looked up to most.

Can you blame them?

For Yamaguchi, it was 1985 U.S. champion Tiffany Chin (who was also fourth at the 1984 Olympics) that inspired her as an up-and-coming skater, showing that the legacy is long-lasting in a sport that requires acrobatics, grace, speed and – now more than ever – the ability to jump and revolve in the air many, many times.

“Being Asian-American isn’t why I started skating, but it was great to have those role models to look up to,” Yamaguchi said. “I’m hopeful for continued success for Nathan, Karen and the others.”

There is plenty of pride for the two current U.S. singles champs, as well.

“I spent a lot of my childhood in Taiwan and am close to my grandparents who are there. I’m so thankful for that,” Karen Chen said. “To me, I’m really proud of my heritage and where I came from. I am proud of who I am and what that represents.”

“I don’t think there was anything special that our parents did to force a Chinese influence on us, but the way that they think, the way that they are, it does,” Nathan Chen said. “I’m thankful for that. I’m the youngest of five kids and I think that all impacted the person and the skater I am today.”

Addendum: The champion that he is today. 

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