Nathan Chen discovers a world outside of figure skating at Yale
Nathan Chen is comfortable being the center of attention when he skates, accustomed to hearing thousands of people applaud while he soars and spins and performs the quadruple jumps that have become his shining trademark.
During his first year at Yale University, he learned to enjoy the times he’s not in the spotlight. Surrounded by other super-achievers and stimulated by venturing into new worlds in the classroom, he didn’t automatically stand out as the charismatic figure skater who cleanly landed five of the six quadruple jumps he attempted in the finale of the men’s singles event at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and nearly pulled off a medal-winning comeback.
Chen, who won his third straight U.S. title in January, went to Japan during spring break and overwhelmingly won his second straight world championship. In defeating two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu by more than 22 points, Chen became the first American to win consecutive world titles since Scott Hamilton won four in a row starting in 1981. Not that Chen is inclined to brag, but he wasn’t the only star on Yale’s campus: Sophie Ascheim of Los Angeles, a fellow student at Jonathan Edwards residential college, won an Oscar in February as an executive producer of a documentary short.
Chen’s skating hasn’t suffered because he’s on an ambitious course at an Ivy League school and has occasionally performed with the Stars on Ice tour, which will be at Honda Center on Saturday. His skating might be even better, because Chen, who turned 20 last Sunday, brings new life experiences and maturity to blend with his extraordinary athleticism.
“It’s crazy. There’s so many outstanding students here. I’m surrounded by some pretty amazing people,” he said in a phone interview after he finished his last exam. “Everyone has their own niche, and I think it’s interesting to be able to just spend some time with other people and listen to how they think, especially people outside of the world of figure skating.
“In the world of figure skating, everyone is so attuned to a day-to-day training program, what the season will look like and relatively short-term skating goals, and that’s kind of the whole topic of conversation. But having an opportunity to not be surrounded by that conversation is something different.”
Chen had to make every moment count, so he got around campus on a motorized skateboard. He scheduled his classes for the morning to leave afternoons free to skate at Ingalls Rink, home of Yale’s hockey teams. He took three classes in his first semester and four in the semester that just ended. “Skating has definitely gone well, but it definitely took me some time to learn how to budget my time appropriately so that I was able to maximize the time I had on the ice,” he said. “It’s also nice for me to have something that takes my mind off skating. At times, it allows me to not dwell on a bad day.”
His biggest adjustment was being separated from Rafael Arutunian, his longtime coach at Lakewood Ice. They learned to rely on texts, FaceTime, and short pre-competition sessions to evaluate his skating. “The only thing that struck me, and really delighted me at the same time, was how he could balance training and study in such a disciplined way,” said Arutunian, who now is based at Great Park Ice in Irvine.
Chen got help from U.S. Olympic Committee representatives in maintaining good nutrition habits and from his coaching team in accommodating his schedule. “I’ve never spent this much time away from Raf on the ice and away from a lot of really, really elite figure skaters. I wasn’t sure how this whole plan would unfold,” Chen said.
“However, Raf does a really, really good job of making sure all of his skaters are self-sufficient on the ice and that they know exactly what they need to get done every day. They need to know their goals. They are able to approach every practice as though it’s their last, which I think is a priority when it comes to training for a competition. That definitely has helped me a lot this year, especially not really having a lot of external motivation to push me through.”
Most elite skaters delay full-time studies until they stop competing. Chen, the son of Chinese immigrants — his father is a research scientist and his mother is a medical translator — didn’t want to wait. He made it work. “I think there was no such precedent in sports for two reasons,” Arutunian said. “First of all, as coach and athlete, we have been working together for a very long time, while secondly, he had been admitted to such a prestigious, demanding university, but still skated on a level so high that he was prepared to defend his title of world champion.”
Chen said he was eager to see the new facility in Irvine, where he plans to train this summer. He wants to continue skating and studying at Yale next season and beyond, though he’d lighten his academic load leading up to the 2022 Winter Olympics. He planned to discuss his next steps with his team.
First, he will have fun with Stars on Ice, whose Anaheim cast is scheduled to include 13-year-old U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu, 2014 Olympic ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, 2018 ice dance bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani, and 2018 team bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia. Chen won’t do a lot of quads. “I might do one or two, depends on how I feel,” he said. “Honestly, these shows are a good opportunity to skate in a performance atmosphere. You don’t want to make mistakes, but if you happen to make a mistake, it’s not like you’re being judged on it. You just get up and figure it out.”
That’s no problem for him, on the ice or off.
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