Column: Nathan Chen set to pursue fifth straight U.S. figure skating championship

Nathan Chen competes in the men's short program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating series.
Nathan Chen competes during the men’s short program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating series on Oct. 23 in Las Vegas.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

A place in American figure skating history awaits Nathan Chen. But first, he must make it safely to the U.S. championships and hope measures designed to fend off the coronavirus will keep everyone safe next week in the bubble created at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

A superbly athletic jumper who has steadily enhanced his artistry, Chen has won four straight U.S. titles. No American man has won five in a row since Dick Button began a seven-year reign in 1946.

Chen, 21, is enough of a student of his sport to appreciate being near the same stratosphere as the immortal Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. “Dick has been a name that’s been around forever and definitely a big source of inspiration growing up as a kid. It would be amazing,” Chen said during a videoconference. “I think that would be something I could cherish dearly for the rest of my life if that is able to happen.


“But as of now, as I always say, it’s difficult to predict results. Just as long as I can train as best I can, prepare myself as best as I can and go to the competition and do everything I can, I’ll be satisfied with the results.”

His preparation involves wearing a mask even while he’s practicing at his training base of Great Park Ice in Irvine. “It’s quite appalling to see how many people are still not abiding by the mask-wearing protocol. Bottom line, you’re helping others. Like, have some empathy,” he said.

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“And I think as it comes to wearing masks, it’s not comfortable to wear a mask. Especially for us. We’re training with masks. We’re running programs. This is high-intensity work that we’re doing and we’re still required to wear masks. If the athletes are able to do that, anyone can really do it. You can wear a mask going to the grocery store.”

Simply competing at the U.S. championships will be a victory of sorts for Chen. The Salt Lake City native had to put his hopes for a third straight world championship on hold last March after pandemic concerns led organizers to cancel the event. Because this season’s Grand Prix calendar was cut by cancellations and limited to mostly domestic fields, he competed in only one significant event, Skate America, in October. He won by more than 24 points over Vincent Zhou, extending his event winning streak to 12.

Chen, who has put his studies at Yale on hold to focus on skating, has found benefits to not being on his customary tight, performance-driven timetable. “As a regular season goes, the time between competitions is quite short so there’s not much time to really change gears and focus on more fundamental-oriented work,” he said, “so this has been nice to have a little bit of a break from solely focusing on programs.”


Still, he’d rather be competing and gearing up for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are merely 13 months away.

Chen nearly won an individual medal in 2018 at Pyeongchang, South Korea, recovering from a jittery 17th-place performance in the short program and soaring to fifth overall after landing an Olympic-record five clean quadruple jumps in his free skate program. He hasn’t lost a competition since then and has shared the pinnacle of the sport with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, a gifted jumper also known for dazzling spins and charismatic choreography.

Their respectful rivalry has driven both to new heights, and they remain the favorites for gold in 2022. Hanyu skipped the Grand Prix circuit this season but won the Japanese men’s title last month by more than 25 points over Shoma Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist. Chen watched Hanyu closely.

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“I’m impressed,” Chen said. “I know he’s been training basically by himself, and training in isolation is pretty tough. I give him a lot of credit for being able to stay on top of his game. I think he’s looking quite strong. It was a nice break to be able to watch some skating, especially from Yuzu, and Shoma as well.

“It’s been a long time since I saw them skate quote-unquote live, and it was nice to be able to see that. I’m looking forward to whatever competition we have in the future where we compete against each other because competing with him is such a unique feeling and experience and I really love it and I would look forward to it.”

If all goes well they could meet again at this year’s world championships, scheduled for March 22-28 in Stockholm. However, a recent virus spike in Sweden has raised questions about whether the event will take place. The International Skating Union — the sport’s governing body — has said it will decide Jan. 28 whether the competition will proceed.

“I would love to have worlds, but before every competition I’m expecting them to just say they’re going to cancel it,” Chen said. “I hope they retain a bubble, but even if that’s the case, as long as everyone’s safe, as long as it’s a responsibly done event, then by all means I would love to be there.”


Most skating careers are relatively short, and it would be a shame for Chen to miss a chance at another world title and lose a rematch against Hanyu. But there’s a world beyond skating, and Chen has maintained a healthy perspective through these difficult circumstances. “I think a lot of people are struggling a lot more than elite athletes,” he said, “and so I don’t think there’s really much to complain about.”