DETROIT – Even the demands of being an Ivy League student couldn’t stand in Nathan Chen’s way of winning a national title.
His life both on and off the ice has done a 360 since last year’s championships but Chen still proved he is the most dominant figure skater in the nation – and at times the world – with two clean performances at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which are part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, that helped him defend his past two wins at the event.
Since last year’s nationals, Chen has become an Olympian, won an Olympic team bronze medal, won the world title, moved from Southern California to New Haven, Connecticut, to begin his freshman year at Yale, committed to living the life of a full-time college student while remaining the greatest skater in the world, and is now undefeated this season.
Now in his second semester, Chen’s results have shown he can do it all as he won his two grand prix assignments – Skate America and Internationaux de France – the Grand Prix Final and now the U.S. championships.
Busier than before, he somehow appeared better than ever in Sunday evening’s free skate.
Chen scored 113.42 in Saturday’s short program and 228.80 in the free skate, which was an incredibly graceful and yet powerful performance, for a total of 342.22. All three scores were personal bests for Chen under this season’s new scoring system and, of course, all-time U.S. championships records.
He beat his closest competitor by an astounding 58.21 points.
“The score definitely took me by surprise, a lot bigger than I was expecting, but ultimately a score’s a score,” Chen, 19, said. “All the jumps went exactly how I wanted them to.”
Of his 11 jumps in the free skate, four were quadruple jumps. Still the “quad king,” as he was dubbed several seasons ago, Chen landed a lutz, a flip and two toeloops, while knocking out six triples. He is capable of a quad salchow but removed it from the program last minute.
2018 Olympian Vincent Zhou took silver with a 284.01 total to mark his third consecutive year on the podium while 2014 Olympian Jason Brown’s 273.08 earned him the bronze to signify his return to the U.S. championships podium after last year’s sixth-place finish left him off the Olympic team.
Chen’s closest competitors can’t help but respect and admire his talent.
“I feel so lucky that Nathan is a teammate – that is how I look at him,” Brown said. “Obviously we compete against each other at nationals but anytime we’re at an international and we’re teammates, I admire him. It’s unbelievable that he’s pushing the sport in ways that growing up in the sport I could have only dreamed.
“It’s really impressive and it really pushes me to push every other boundary that I can and every other asset that I can bring to the table as I compete. … I’m so happy he skates for Team USA.”
Chen’s three consecutive U.S. titles make him the first man to earn three in a row since Johnny Weir’s in 2004-2006.
“Nationals is, of course, no joke. I’m literally standing here with two of the best skaters in the U.S. and possibly the world, so it’s really an honor to be on top of the podium today,” Chen stated. “There’s not much to say besides the fact I’m extremely happy and proud of myself and all the work that I put in, and also how much of an honor it is to be up here with these two guys.”
The past six months have taught Chen a lot about time management, responsibility and independence.
He takes four courses a semester – last semester’s included chemistry, Calculus 1, Spanish and an English course (‘Dopamine And Its Discontents’), while two of this semester’s have yet to be determined – and is required to have eight credits by the end of the year in order to advance to his second year. He is enjoying the social life and activities that come with living on campus as a college freshman, saying they are welcome distractions that help take his mind off skating when he has a bad day at the rink.
Though not an NCAA athlete himself, Chen works with the school to use its training facilities, including sharing time at Yale’s rink with the school’s women’s ice hockey team, among others.
“I’m really lucky and really honored to have the opportunity to be able to skate at Yale,” he 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.”
All the while, he is managing his own training schedule without having an in-person coach.
Chen is coached by Rafael Arutunian, who remains in Lakeshore, California, while Chen is in New Haven and only video conferences with Arutunian as needed, though Chen spent a few weeks back in California with his family, coach and training mates during his winter break.
“It was really nice to be back home. California is beautiful, so it was really nice to be able to get away from the cold of New Haven,” Chen said. “It’s always really nice to be able to train with Mariah (Bell) and Michal Brezina and of course Rafael. He fosters a really great training atmosphere, so it was really great to be back in that and fine-tuning the things I let slip throughout the season. He really knows me well and he knows what things will change throughout the season, so it was nice to get a refresher on that.
“His presence really forces us to be much more alert, much more on top of what we’re doing. Having that and also a little bit more guidance from him in terms of how to structure practices was really beneficial.”
Chen called his nationals win “reassuring” to know that he can balance and master both school and skating, though he had it tougher during the grand prix season, which he juggled with midterms, finals and other collegiate obligations.
He insists he is taking it one semester at a time for now, unsure of how much longer he will be able to maintain this pace and that it’s up in the air as to when one of the two priorities might have to take a backseat.
“Overall I think it’s been an adjustment in getting used to training by myself, putting school and all that together with training,” he said. “I’ve been really enjoying it – I think it’s a really great opportunity for myself and I’m looking forward to continuing as long as I can.”