By Blythe Lawrence | April 18, 2019, 12:45 p.m. (ET)

 

Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Figure skater Nathan Chen won Male Athlete of the Month for March 2019 after claiming his second consecutive world title in Saitama, Japan, posting the top scores in both the short program and free skate. The victory completed a perfect season for Chen. In his Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, we look at how Chen did it all while also balancing college coursework at Yale.

 

 The first year of college is a tumultuous test for any athlete. There’s so much to get used to — living away from home, writing term papers and adapting to different training conditions — that it’s only understandable if the athlete who chooses to combine high level studying with elite sport sees his or her performance quality take a hit.

Except if you’re Nathan Chen. In which case it just makes you better.

With his second consecutive world title won last month in Saitama, Japan, all signs point to the idea that rather than being a distraction, beginning college at Yale has actually helped the 19-year-old quad king develop into a better skater. 

At the very least, it hasn’t hurt: Despite the rigorous academic demands of being Yale freshman with a class schedule that includes calculus, statistics, psychology and a course called “Listening to Music,” Chen has emerged from the ivy a fitter and more tenacious skater.

In competition, he exceeded expectations by going undefeated, taking an early title at Skate America, following by winning the Internationaux de France and sailing through the ISU Grand Prix Final and the U.S. championships, where he picked up his third consecutive national men’s singles title. And all this with his longtime coach Rafael Arutunian on the other coast in California, monitoring his progress from afar via video chat sessions.

Chen’s individual on-ice final came at the world championships against two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, on Hanyu’s home ice, while many of his fellow co-eds were on spring break. Chen nailed it, hitting four of his famous quadruple jumps to become the first American two-time men’s world champion since Scott Hamilton did it in 1983 and ’84, the final two years of a quad in which Hamilton absolutely dominated the sport.

Chen did it knowing he was under pressure of having to justify his choice of prioritizing school at least as much as skating, with some on the outside not thinking he would be able to maintain his expected level of excellence on the ice.

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Nathan Chen competes at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 21, 2019 in Saitama, Japan.

 

“I’m really loving being in the college atmosphere, being able to have something to do outside of the rink, being able to focus on things that are – in my opinion – equally as important as the time that I spend on the ice,” Chen said at nationals in January. “In California, everything is structured around skating. If you have a bad day, that carries on throughout the rest of the day, but if you have an opportunity to potentially have a bad day on the ice you can still have a good day outside of the rink. I think that mood change carries on for the next day.

“I feel like I’m learning quite a lot outside of skating and within skating in terms of how to train by myself, how to deal with unknown circumstances that I’m definitely not used to. Overall everything’s paying off exactly how I hoped it would.”

As an encore, he returned to Japan last weekend to help Team USA reclaim its first title at the World Team Trophy since 2015, once again over the host country.

The success has left those who know what it is to balance school and sports shaking their heads. 

“I can’t imagine training by myself day after day,” U.S. Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Wylie’s career trajectory bears some similarities Chen’s — he graduated from Harvard in 1991, a year before winning silver at the Olympic Winter Games Albertville 1992 — but throughout his studies he trained with his coaches at a rink in Boston. Chen, meanwhile, puts himself through his paces alone at the same rink where the Yale hockey teams play.

“I’m really lucky and really honored to have the opportunity to be able to skate at Yale,” Chen said. “There aren’t many athletes that get the opportunity to skate at Yale, so I’m just so thankful that Yale has given me the ice time for me to continue pursuing my dreams outside of school.”

Wylie believes the distraction of school and the way it opens the world to a student, can only be a good thing.

“I drew on many different sources of strength in my career, and it was critical to have many of the voices I heard come from outside of the rink,” Wylie reflected in a Q&A with U.S. Figure Skating. “I do not regret one day I spent at school. In fact, I wish I had been more involved, not less.”

Chen, too, is determined to see it through. Although he realizes that as the 2022 Olympics loom closer and his studies become more intense — he plans to do medicine — he remains steadfast about staying the course … at least for now.

“I already started this path, and I don’t want to pull out just yet. I still want to continue at Yale,” Chen told reporters on a conference call this winter. “I will try next semester and then I’ll reevaluate after this year. I think as of this year, I’ll continue here next year as well, and go from there and see if it’s possible to maintain the two.”

So far, he’s not sure what the future schedule will be for next season – or semester – but he knows the balance is paying off.

“I have been able to develop my personality away from skating,” he reflected at worlds. “Skating isn’t everything. I want to impact the world – not to sound pretentious – in a better way outside of skating.”

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.