GREENSBORO, N.C. – Often on his phone and very connected to social media, Nathan Chen saw the news of Kobe Bryant’s death within minutes of it being reported Sunday afternoon. The two-time Olympic basketball champion and 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine who died in a helicopter crash.
“I thought it was some fake news that was circulating,” Chen said. “I honestly can’t even believe it still. He’s a cultural icon.”
But the 20-year-old figure skater knew he had a job to do, and he channeled Bryant’s attitude: “The Mamba Mentality,” as it’s known. Within hours of learning of the icon’s death Chen took to the ice at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex and performed a winning free skate that included four quadruple jumps.
“It’s tough,” Chen said of putting aside the shocking news to prepare for his program. “Ultimately I still have my job here, and if he was in a certain situation like this, I think he would ultimately focus on what he has to do.”
Chen scored a 216.04 for his “Rocketman” free skate to earn a 330.17 total and his fourth consecutive title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
2014 Olympian Jason Brown, 25, scored 292.88 for silver and his best placement since winning gold at the same venue in 2015, while 20-year-old Tomoki Hiwatashi’s 278.08 earned him bronze for his first top-three in four senior nationals. 2018 Olympian and 2019 world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, 19, placed an impressive fourth with 275.23 points; Zhou hadn’t stepped on the ice once for a two-month period between October and December while he focused on his studies at Brown University. Chen, Brown and Zhou will compete at March’s world championships.
The last time Chen competed in Greensboro he placed eighth at his senior debut. He has come a long way in a short time, now making history as the first man in 32 years to win four titles in a row. The last was 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, whose came 1985-88.
“It’s a huge step for me to take the next step to becoming — not necessarily becoming one of these legends but to follow in their footsteps,” Chen said of his latest feat. “These guys have done amazing things well beyond what I’ve already accomplished and it’s amazing to be able to have that sort of inspiration in front of you, and to have something to look forward to, just to try to see as far as I can take myself. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to match all the things that they did – Scott (Hamilton), Brian (Boitano), Dick (Button) – in the past, but it’s truly amazing to be able to follow in their footsteps in this way.”
Chen has developed relationships with each of those legends, among others, and sought advice from them throughout the journey to his own legend status. And, in some ways, his accolades are already as impressive as theirs.
While Chen does not yet have an elusive Olympic gold medal – he finished fifth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 following a disastrous 17th-place short program he considers one of his biggest learning lessons – he has reached the top step of the podium at every other competition one could hope to in the sport.
The “Quad King,” as Chen was dubbed in 2016, has been undefeated since the world title he won immediately following that Olympic flub. The Greensboro win marks his 10th consecutive individual gold medal, a streak that spans three seasons and includes two world titles and two Grand Prix Final wins.
It is believed to be the greatest amount of wins in men’s figure skating since Hamilton went undefeated for four seasons in the early 1980s.
“No one’s perfect, even if you’re undefeated for a large amount of time, the next competition you never know what’s going to happen,” Chen said of his streak. “If I start focusing on the results and start thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to this competition because I want to continue this streak,’ it’ll probably be the end of it, so I have to prepare myself for the possibility. …
“If someone else wins, so be it, I’ll just work harder and try to get myself into a better position to win the next competition. The streak is awesome, I’m happy to be able to do that, but it really is not the most important thing in my career.”
Nine of his latest 10 victories have come while attending an Ivy League university. Chen is a sophomore at Yale and has said he has no plans to slow down his coursework, nor does he have any intentions of choosing academia over skating – or vice versa – in the near future.
This latest also came following a bout with the flu earlier this month, which was notably worse than past instances where he has been sick prior to or during a competition.
“I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” Chen’s longtime coach Rafael Arutunian told NBC Sports’ Phil Hersh.
The now-seasoned veteran Chen was able to use his past experiences to overcome and get just enough preparation in on time for nationals, and he also pulled from the lessons he has absorbed from studying one of his inspirations, Bryant.
“I’ve read snippets of his book as inspiration. His mentality, his work ethic is unmatched by any athlete that I know of,” said Chen, who can be seen with a basketball while he warms up for competition. “The way that he frames the game, the way he analyzes the game, the way he’s able to push himself past incredible amounts of pain – he tore his Achilles and still went to the free-throw line to shoot shots, that’s insane. How many people in the world would ever do something like that? His mentality is something all athletes can draw upon.”