Each mistake he made during the figure skating team competition at the Pyeongchang Olympics — and there were many — sliced away chunks of Nathan Chen's confidence.
When the U.S men's champion stumbled through his short program in the men's singles event a week later, he seemed in shock and again couldn't explain what had gone so wrong. Chen, who trains at The Rinks-Lakewood Ice, had been a medal favorite after an undefeated season but stood 17th after the first phase of the two-part competition, too far out to hope for a medal. A spectacular and highest-scored free skate, in which he cleanly landed an Olympic-record five of the six quadruple jumps he attempted, elevated him to fifth overall, leaving him with the burden of wondering what might have happened if he had skated a little better in that ruinous short program.
That burden unexpectedly turned into a blessing.
A month later in Milan, Italy, Chen won the world championship, cleanly landing five quadruple jumps in his free skate to become the first American man to win the title since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen, who turned 19 last week, believes his triumph would not have been possible without the struggles he endured at the Olympics and the strength he gained from having to fight for the top placement that had come so easily to him before he competed at Pyeongchang.
"I don't regret anything at the Olympics. I honestly wouldn't change it if I could," said Chen, who is a featured performer in the Stars on Ice troupe that will make a stop in Anaheim on Saturday.
"I think I grew a lot as a person, I grew a lot as a skater, because of the mistakes. Obviously, that didn't happen at the greatest time, but people aren't always perfect and it was a good experience for me to know what it's like to be in that rut, to be that low in the rankings, because through the majority of my career I had been top-six at least. So it was a completely new situation that I wasn't prepared for, but because I wasn't prepared for it, I think that should help me in the long run."
Having conquered that challenge, Chen is preparing to take on another that's equally monumental and involves much more than reeling off an array of quadruple jumps.
Chen has committed to attending Yale in the fall with the intention of majoring in statistics, maybe to go into the field of medical statistics. That's pressure enough, but he also plans to continue competing in Grand Prix events, and the U.S. and world championships.
Intense study and elite figure skating aren't an easy mix because of the demands that come with each path. Sarah Hughes, the 2002 women's Olympic gold medalist, attended Yale but after her competitive career ended; she's now at Penn Law School. Michelle Kwan, a silver medalist in 1998 and bronze medalist in 2002, also waited until her competitive days ended before she graduated from the University of Denver and got a master's degree from Tufts. Going back in Olympic history, American Tenley Albright competed while studying at Radcliffe — often skating at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. before her classes — but took a break from school to prepare for the 1956 Winter Games, where she added a gold medal to the silver she had earned in 1952. She later enrolled at Harvard and became a renowned surgeon.
How will Chen manage to balance schoolwork and skating? "To be determined," he said, laughing, during a phone conversation. "There are rinks around campus that I can skate at and coaches, but we'll figure out something good. We already have a preliminary plan set out so it should be good."
That plan also involves Chen returning to Southern California to work with his coach, Rafael Arutunian, during breaks. "I'm going to be home probably four months out of the year, anyway, just for summer break, spring break, etc. I'd have to use that time to really work with him," Chen said. "I'll also try to bring him out every now and then if he's available. I know he has a lot of students back in California right now, but as much as he can. And outside of that I'll check in with him at the end of every week and go from there."
In the meantime, Chen is enjoying the team atmosphere of Stars on Ice. He skates in the opening and closing numbers, two individual performances, and two group numbers. But don't look for any six-quadruple jump routines. "I have been throwing in a quad toe in most of the shows, just to challenge myself a little bit," he said. "I don't want to put myself at risk of injury so I've been limiting the number that I'm doing, but I figured one a show — there's 22 total shows. I practice way more quads in practice than I would in a show. Just to put myself a little bit in spots, under pressure."
He's also in a dance routine in which he and Ashley Wagner perform with 2014 Olympic ice dance gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and U.S. ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. For someone who likes challenges, an Olympic ice dance medal might be an interesting goal. "2022 is still quite a long ways away. 2026 is even longer," Chen said. "No, I'm joking."
His ambitions as a full-time college student and elite singles skater are no joke.