Nathan Chen competes at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
By the end of the 2018 season, Nathan Chen was standing at the top of the figure skating world.
After finishing fifth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Chen rebounded to win the world title in just his second international season as a senior skater, wowing judges with his high-flying quadruple jumps that pushed the limits of what figure skaters can do.
Then he came home and changed everything that had helped him win the championship.
After years of homeschooling and training in California with Rafael Arutunian, Chen enrolled at Yale on the other side of the country. He continued to work with Arutunian, sending videos of his practices so his coach could keep an eye on his progress in New Haven, Connecticut, and then meeting up with him at competitions and during school breaks.
Despite changing everything, Chen continued to dominate. Earlier this season, he took first at Skate America, the Internationaux de France and the Grand Prix Final while also balancing his course load at Yale.
“I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity, and I still wanted to do a lot in skating,” Chen, now 19, told reporters on a conference call earlier this month. “I’ve been pretty happy with how things have been going, and hopefully over the next couple of months I’ll be able to keep on improving.”
Chen’s full trophy case doesn’t weigh him down or prop him up as he heads into the U.S. championships in Detroit this week, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
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“It’s cool that I had an opportunity to compete at world championships last year, and I happened to win. But that happened in the past,” said Chen, who comes to Detroit as the two-time defending U.S. men’s champ. “I don’t really want to bring that into future competition. I don’t think that changes all too much. Every single competition, you come in fresh.”
While changing his training and schooling environment did not hurt Chen’s result in international competition, not everything was easy for him.
“It’s a completely new training atmosphere, a completely new learning atmosphere. Everything I’ve had in the past few years in California was gone,” he said. “I didn’t have a coach, I didn’t have the same training ice. Times were completely different. Overall, I managed pretty well.”
Chen would not disclose his exact grade point average, but he did say managed to pull some As and Bs. His motivation to excel at the Ivy League school is no different than his motivation to excel in skating.
“You’re still learning pretty similar material, so not that different,” he said. “You’ll work in study groups, but at the end of the day, you have to get your homework in on time, you have to learn your material, you have an exam day, so motivation is still based on whatever you have to have done by the end of the day.”
While Chen was on winter break from Yale, he returned to California to work with Arutunian. With the next Olympics still three years away, he wants to try continuing bicoastal training for as long as possible, but he knows this arrangement probably won’t last forever.
“Raf is now saying, ‘You need to come back. There’s so much you can learn at the rink. I respect what your decision is at Yale, but it’s been so great having you here,’” Chen said. “He really wishes I could stay here full time.
“At the same time, I already started this path and I don’t want to pull out just yet. I still want to continue at Yale. 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.”
Following a disappointing short program, Chen closed out his Olympics on a high note by hitting six quadruple jumps during his free skate, breaking a record for men’s figure skating and scoring the highest in the free skate. Since then, however, judging criteria has changed in the sport. Skaters are rewarded more for landing difficult jumps cleanly, and penalized more for mistakes.
In Chen’s winning free skate at the Grand Prix Final in December, he landed four quad jumps, including one in a combination. At nationals, he expects to skate a similar program.
“Throughout the season, I have attempted less quads than I have in previous seasons, and that’s partially because I haven’t really been ready to attempt the quads,” he said. “But also because it’s not as worth it right now. If you make a mistake, there’s a big weight on the score you end up getting.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.