Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Nathan Chen had Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi at “Kung Fu Panda.”
That was Chen’s music as a 10-year-old dynamo, whirling across the ice like Po the Panda. After winning his first major title, national novice champion, Chen performed in the exhibition at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with the two Olympic gold medalists watching in the stands.
“Kristi Yamaguchi and I looked at each other,” Boitano said. “We’re like, ‘We’re going backstage to meet that kid.’ We went backstage and he didn’t say a word. It’s sort of like he is today. He’s just so intense and I get his intensity, because I’ve felt that myself before.”
At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Chen, now 18 years old, is the best hope for a Team USA gold medal in figure skating. No American skater has won a medal of any kind in men’s or women’s singles since Evan Lysacek won the gold in 2010.
Last year Chen became the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in competition and he’s now in the midst of an exceptional undefeated season, including the 2018 Grand Prix Final title.
Chen, who will make his Olympic debut skating the men’s short program in the team competition, said it is “reassuring” to be seen as a gold-medal contender in men’s singles.
“Honestly, I’ve worked hard to get where I am now,” said the Salt Lake City native, “and for people to recognize that and see that I have the potential to be on top of the podium definitely gives me confidence and motivates me to continue working hard.”
Boitano, the 1988 gold medalist, said he feels like Chen is being held to a higher standard than other skaters.
“I’m watching the commentators, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he almost put his hand down on that quad flip,’” Boitano said. “And I’m like, ‘Guys he’s doing a quad flip and he did not put his hand down. Cut him a break. He’s setting the bar so high that if he doesn’t land every quad perfectly in the program, it’s OK. This guy’s creating history here.’”
PyeongChang Plans For The Quad
Boitano said he wants to see Chen “go for it” in PyeongChang.
Chen said Wednesday that he plans to do two quads in his short program and four or five quads in the free skate depending on how things go in practices.
“It just kind of depends on percentages and how I feel,” said Chen, who won his second straight national title with five quads, two in combination.
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and NBC analyst in PyeongChang, said he hasn’t seen a U.S. skater so consistent since Boitano.
“He’s got an iron will and a phenomenal ability to concentrate and trust his body, his technique and his training,” Hamilton said.
He added that Chen is “doing more than anyone has ever done” and on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s what I affectionately call sick and twisted,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “It’s just not right. Who can do that? Well, he can.”
Yet before Chen became the Quad King, he struggled with the four-revolution jump at age 11 or 12.
“It was just not coming along at all,” he said. “It was really cheated. I’d fall really, really hard, and I kind of got scared of it. I didn’t even really want to attempt it. But as I got a little stronger, my technique was getting better. I kind of just wanted to go for it and it really didn’t take me long.”
Chen was 14 or 15 when he began attempting the quad toe in earnest, and he said it took about a week to land it. Then in another couple of days he landed a quad salchow. The quad flip arrived later.
“Quads are a mix of just a lot of power, a lot of mental stress and a lot of technique,” Chen said. “You have to be in tune with your body so that you know when to take off, when to rotate, when to check.”
He compared it to weightlifting, “where you’re lifting an extremely heavy weight in a very short period of time and you’re basically using all of your exertion in a split second. And then once that happens, you have to be very precise on where your body is so that you can check out properly.”
Chen said the difference between a triple jump and a quad jump is “just like adding another 100 pounds to your bar.”
He also has been working to make sure the quads are incorporated well into his program.
“It definitely makes it much more difficult,” Chen said, “especially since you have to think of so many different things and if your mind slips for a second, the quad won’t go the way you want it to.”
Triple Axel Woes
While his quads at the 2018 nationals went off without a hitch, he messed up his planned triple axel, turning it into a single.
“Even Achilles had a heel, right?” said Hamilton. “He’ll get it. There’s nothing he can’t do.”
But Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, didn’t let him forget it. “It was basically like that was the center of attention,” Chen said. “’That was your one mistake. What did you need to do to fix it? Why did you make the mistake, etc.’ I need someone like that, someone who makes sure that I stay grounded and I stay humble. I know what I did right, what I did wrong. I can always improve and that’s someone who always makes sure that I know that.”
And despite the mistake, Chen said his mother was “very, very proud of me. She raised me on the ice really and she’s still been by my side ever since.”
Olympic teammate Adam Rippon has been by Chen’s side in training the last six years under the watchful eye of coach Rafael Arutyunyan.
“We have a very healthy relationship,” Rippon said. “I’m the oldest of six kids and Nathan is the youngest of five kids, so we get along really well and we kind of mesh together.”
He said they fall into their expected roles. “I feel like I’m a big brother and he’s a little brother,” Rippon said. “At the same time, we’re both competitive. We both want to do our best. It’s very healthy while being very competitive at the same time.”
Chen also keeps tabs on what his international rivals are doing. Defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who is coming off an ankle injury, was the first skater to land a quad loop in competition. Shoma Uno, also of Japan, was the first to land a quad flip.
“Without someone pushing me, I don’t think I’d be able to do all the quads that I do now,” said Chen, who trained in ballet when he was younger, appearing in productions including “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Javier Fernandez of Spain, Mikhail Kolyada, one of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, and Patrick Chan of Canada are other top contenders.
“These are all guys I’ve competed against at worlds, at big competitions,” Chen said. “It’ll definitely be a challenging competition, but ultimately I’ll be on the ice by myself, so I can’t control what the other guys do.”
Hamilton believes Chen will be the first skater to do quad/quad combinations. “Why not?” he said.
He already has done enough to warrant a cereal box – for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.“It’s crazy,” Chen said. “I remember being a little kid going to the grocery store seeing all these athletes on boxes. It’s insane to think that I’m now one of those athletes on those boxes.”