(L-R) Vincent Zhou, Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and Tomoki Hiwatashi following the men's free skate finals at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 27, 2019 in Detroit.
Since failing to reach the podium at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, American figure skater Nathan Chen has had one goal in mind each time he’s stepped out onto the ice: Just get better.
That’s no easy task for any athlete, but especially for Chen, now 20, who is the two-time reigning world champion, three-time U.S. champion, and hasn’t lost a competition he’s entered since that crushing few days last February.
“My skating focus for this year… is, as best as I can, top what I’ve done in seasons past, as realistic slash unrealistic as that can be,” Chen told reporters on a call Monday ahead of Skate America.
The event is the first grand prix event of the figure skating season, set for this coming weekend in Las Vegas.
Chen continued: “I’m focusing on continuing to train. I’m taking notes from what worked and what didn’t last year.”
What didn’t work last year was very little, but the challenge is in forward motion for Chen, whose chief international rival once again this year is two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who won silver behind Chen this past spring at worlds in Japan, though Hanyu was competing on an injured ankle.
“The sport continues to evolve. These guys that I’m competing against are continuing to get better and are continuing to try to do new things,” said Chen. “The personalities out there are really competitive… that helps me with my drive. I don’t want to fall behind. (For that) I have great people around me.”
Not immediately around him, however. For the second season in a row, Chen is attending college at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, while his coach, Rafael Arutunian, checks in from across the country, in Southern California.
Chen has kept the same choreography team from a year ago, as well: former ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne (the short program, “La Boheme”) and Marie-France Dubreuil (the free skate, an Elton John medley featuring “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Rocketman” and “Bennie and the Jets”).
He also works with Brandon Siakel of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee on his off-ice regimen and physical training. Chen is an especially big fan of NormaTec and Hyperice technologies, both which help in recovery, and both which are easily used at home.
Home, of course, continues to be Yale for his sophomore year there. While he spent the summer with Arutunian training and putting together a detailed attack plan for this season in California, Chen says the biggest change this fall is how much harder his schooling is as well as its demands on him.
“School is tough... It’s a lot more work than it was last year,” Chen explained bluntly. “The classes involve more of my attention. I’m trying to find that balance again. I’m trying to be the best I can be academically. Skating-wise, things might be a little easier this year. Classes are definitely harder. I’m working with [teaching assistants], using all the different resources I can on campus. But the classes are generally harder. I’m really grinding. That’s the biggest change.”
It's scary to hear the two-time world champ say that the skating has been easier, in a sense, but what he means by that is he is grooved into this routine: He checks in once a week with Arutunian via FaceTime, but otherwise is implementing their plan and sending his coach a video of that skill or this jump.
“We had a plan going off of the summer to go into the season and how I should train… I try to execute (that),” Chen said. “It’s tough not having a coach. I lack that elite atmosphere. I definitely miss that. (But) it is what it is.”
Chen spoke at length last season about much of the same: He misses his training mates in fellow American skater Mariah Bell, Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic, good friend Romain Ponsart of France and recent addition to the Arutunian camp, Stephen Gogolev of Canada.
“(In the summer) it was nice just to see where I’m at, have Raf see where I’m at and then figure out what I can improve on and how to take general action steps in the right direction,” Chen says.
Last season it was a pointed focus on the triple Axel, which had at one stage been his trouble jump while the quads came easily. He didn’t miss one through three competitions during the grand prix series. This season, he has continued to cull the knowledge of Bourne and Dubreuil, while delivering two fresh-look programs in “La Boheme” and “Rocketman.”
“Both of the music selections were actually (the choreographers’) ideas,” he said. “I find myself really enjoying when the choreographer has that drive with a piece of music that they want me to skate to… to get me that best result. Typically, when I get those choices, on the first day I’m like, ‘Eh, I don’t know. I need to think about it.’”
But both programs have grown on Chen, and his goal is to shape and fine-tune them as the season goes. He starts this weekend at Skate America (he opened his season by winning the free skate-only Japan Open in late September), then will go to the Internationaux de France in early November.
The goal is to make the Grand Prix Final in December, an event he’s won the last two seasons. Hanyu won four straight from 2013-16, while Chen is looking for a third in a row. It’s the first event this season where the two could renew their rivalry, Chen having won their last head-to-head meeting at worlds.
For Skate America, Chen isn’t sure exactly how many quads he’ll do in his free skate. He did four at Japan Open, so that’s the plan for now, but no matter the quad count, he’s no doubt the clear favorite in Vegas. Americans Jason Brown and Alex Krasnozhon are also in the 12-man field, which features Jin Boyang of China, Chen’s training mate Brezina, Keegan Messing of Canada, Cha Jun-hwan of South Korea and Russian skaters Dmitri Aliev and Roman Savosin.
When Chen takes to the ice Friday afternoon for the short program, it will be the season debut of “La Boheme.”
“’La Boheme’ is a lot deeper and has a soul to it (compared to short programs from past seasons),” he explained. “People are interpreting it differently. I’m trying to come at it and figure out how I can interpret it best. The music has a lot of character, soul and depth.”
So does Chen. He has matured over the past few seasons as an artist, no longer the just-look-at-this-kid-do-jumps that he arrived as during the 2016-17 season, when he made his first international splash.
But to top what he’s done the last two years? Well that’s going to be rather difficult. The last time he was on the ice for a full competition – at worlds in the spring – he set a world record score of 323.42.
That, however, is the skating life of Nathan Chen. And for us watching along? Well, it just doesn’t get any better.