Suddenly one of the leaders of his sport on the global stage and the best men’s figure skater that the U.S. has produced in nearly a decade (or longer?), Nathan Chen will always have a certain title he that he can’t – even if he wanted to – shed: little brother.
The youngest of five kids to Zhidong Chen and Hetty Wang, Chen has a sister in Silicon Valley, another working on her Ph.D., and two brothers – one studying aerospace and one that has a career in finance.
And their little brother? He’s trying to become the first U.S. man to win a singles figure skating medal at an Olympic Winter Games since Evan Lysacek captured gold in Vancouver in 2010 – not to mention the youngest American to do so since 14-year-old Scott Allen earned bronze in 1964.
“I'm the oldest, so he'll always be my baby brother,” Alice Chen, Nathan’s oldest sister, told TeamUSA.org. “It's been so incredible watching him grow into both the person and the athlete he is now. He's so strong in every aspect of the word, and I'm really, really proud of how far he's come and how far he'll go.”
That’s the precipice where Chen, now 18, stands now: Between what he’s done and what he could do, both aspects contributing to his rise in stardom in the Olympic realm and beyond. Over the last year he’s become the U.S. champion, a Grand Prix Final medalist, the Four Continents winner and – undoubtedly – one of the best five men in the world.
Life is happening – and fast. Four years ago, ahead of the Sochi Olympics, he had yet to make his senior debut. Now? He’s leading man.
“I’m really honored and blessed to have these new experiences,” Chen told reporters at last month’s Team USA Media Summit. “To me, (being in high demand) is not that big of a deal. I grew up doing a ton of things, driving around going to different classes outside of skating and school. Having a busy schedule is nothing new to me.”
Only this busy includes trying to make him a star. He’s done a TV commercial with United, a glamorous photo shoot with NBC and says there are more sponsorship deals coming down the pipeline. All of this comes with pressure for the reigning U.S. champ: He’s seen as the best (and, perhaps, lone) shot for a medal in men’s skating for Team USA next February at the PyeongChang Games.
He is the ‘it’ skater that many in the States have waited for, with coolly coiffed hair and a wry smile that is both slippery and quietly confident. He skates with aggression and poise, working the last two years on fine-tuning his artistry to go along with his explosive jumps. Last season, he became the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a long program, and his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, has discussed him possibly doing seven. Nathan, for his part, chuckled at the suggestion.
But as the Olympics approach and the pressure mounts, Chen has a staid stance on it all: He’s taking it in a sort of stride that only an 18-year-old can have. This weekend he will officially open his 2017-18 season at the grand prix stop in Moscow, going head-to-head with the reigning Olympic gold medalist and the skater many consider to be one of the greatest of all time, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.
Chen understands all of the attention is because of his results, even as intense as it is.
“It’s reassuring that I’m on the right path… This is what comes with attempting to make an Olympic team and winning nationals,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting all of (this success), no, but I knew I was capable of doing it. It’s about being in the right time and place, I guess.”
Or, according to his sister, more like all of the hard work that has put him in the position that he is.
“We've watched firsthand the blood, sweat and tears Nathan has been putting into his career over the course of literally his entire life,” she said. “I can hardly even remember a time when he wasn't skating; he probably spent more time at the rink than he ever did at home.”
With that comes with missing out on some “normal” teenage experiences, like high school (he’s gone to online school for the last three years and has his degree) and all that goes along with it.
“I guess I’m a little jealous of other teenagers,” Chen admitted. “I never got to go to prom or homecoming or a lot of the typical teenage stuff. But, if you think about it, I’ve gotten to go and meet different people and travel all over the world. These are crazy things... All of that comes with it.”
And this: He considered buying a car for himself this year as a first big splurge but has decided to hold off until after the Olympics. Prudent, you could say. But also – car purchase aside – you’ve got to hand it to him: He seems to be doing it right.
For his agent Yuki Saegusa – who also works with the likes of Kristi Yamaguchi and other Olympic stars – Chen is the kind of extraordinary athlete and person that only comes along once in a generation. His brilliance reaches beyond the rink – and that’s what makes him so great.
“I don’t think I have really met anyone quite like him,” she told TeamUSA.org. “I find that he is able to process an enormous amount of information, pressure and challenges. Nathan’s maturity is incredible and his innate desire to be the best he can be (for any endeavor) is at a very high level. All of us on Nathan’s team have the goal of keeping things ‘comfortable’ and ‘manageable’ for him, whether it be scheduling, training, recovery, and just time to be an 18-year-old.”
Saegusa credits the Chen family for helping foster an atmosphere of discipline and hard work, and Nathan’s sister Alice said the unit is as close as they come, the whole of them texting, calling and FaceTime-ing often.
“Nathan is thoughtful, kind and generous, and goes out of his way to put family first,” Alice said. “He truly values his relationship with everybody in our family; we don't get to see each other often, but we are all very, very close.”
If all goes as planned – and there is little doubt that Chen won’t be headed to PyeongChang in February – all four siblings will make the trek, as well. After all, they wouldn’t dare miss their baby brother’s big moment.
“I’m the baby for sure,” Chen confirmed to reporters, laughing. “I’m always the one being taught. I’m always the one who is getting all the new information. My siblings are looking out for me, making sure I’m not doing something stupid. They are making sure my head is set straight and that I’m a good person outside of skating and inside of it, too. They all hyped me to go to the Olympics when I was a little kid. They’re very excited for me.”
And while Chen has found new layers of himself as a person and skater because of his family, they want him to be selfish in this moment: It’s his and his alone.
“It's not so much what (making the Olympics) would mean for us, as much as it's what it would mean for Nathan,” Alice Chen said. “Either way, he should be proud of everything he's done to push himself and the sport forward, but I think making the Olympic team would show him that his heart, soul and hard work has paid off – and we all want that for him.”
Spoken like a true big sister.