Nathan Chen wasn’t quite 3 years old when the 2002 Olympics took place in his hometown of Salt Lake City but he remembers being fascinated by the figure skaters who were soaring and spinning across the TV screen. Later, at a rink near his home, he’d pretend to be competing at the Olympics, developing the artistic instincts and extraordinary jumping ability that would make his dream come true.
He didn’t have long to wait: He was nominated to the 2018 Pyeongchang team after he won his second straight U.S. men’s title. His ever-supportive parents and siblings were ecstatic.
“I didn’t feel any excitement,” Chen said. “I was with my sisters, with my family, and they were like, ‘Are you excited? Are you looking forward to this?’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, totally.’ But deep down I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’m just dreading this experience. I am not looking forward to this. This is terrifying.’”
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His fear was obvious in Pyeongchang, where he staggered through his short program in the team competition. In the men’s singles event, where he was expected to challenge defending gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, he outright imploded in the short program.
Chen fell and failed to complete his required combination jump, stepped out of a quadruple toe-loop jump, and put his hands down on the ice in landing a triple-axel jump. He ranked a shocking 17th, well out of medal contention. “He just looked so tentative, nervous,” NBC commentator and 1998 women’s Olympic champion Tara Lipinski said. “You could see it in his eyes.”
Chen let loose in a dynamic free-skate finale, freed of pressure by knowing the worst had already happened. He cleanly landed five of his six quadruple jumps and compiled the top score for the free skate, but he had put himself in such a deep hole that he rose only to fifth. He got some consolation when he won his first world title a month later, but Hanyu missed that event so it wasn’t a head-to-head victory. Chen, it appeared, had missed his golden Olympic moment.
His memory has mercifully deleted the gory details of his Olympic misadventure, and he hasn’t watched it on video. Why relive a nightmare? Chen salvaged what he could, lessons that turned out to be more helpful for his mental approach than for his jump technique.
“I don’t really remember how that program went and felt,” he said. “I don’t really feel the need to go back and look at that. What I did, what I learned, what I experienced — that’s stuff that I’m carrying already, and all that stuff has already helped me.
“I’ve already learned a big lesson in terms of how to address competitions with excitement, with happiness, with just overall joy, and I think being able to maintain that is the most important thing for me.”
Since Pyeongchang, he has been driven by a quest for fulfillment, not a single-minded hunt for redemption. Now 22, with three world titles and six straight U.S. titles on his resume, Chen has developed a calm and positive outlook as the foundation for his return to the Olympics and anticipated rematch with two-time gold medalist Hanyu. Without the anxiety and nerves that made his legs wobble in Pyeongchang, Chen can be his dynamic self in Beijing. That should be wondrous.
“This time around I’m super excited. This is awesome,” said Chen, who trains with coach Rafael Arutyunyan and other elite skaters at Great Park Ice in Irvine.
“I’ve already been there so I kind of know what to expect, and it’s exciting. Not often do I get to have an opportunity to go to the Olympics. Two, perhaps, in my entire lifetime. Looking forward and looking back, I want to be able to enjoy this experience.”
Chen overcame a chronic groin problem to easily repeat as U.S. champion in early January, earning a U.S.-record 115.39 points for his short program to “La Boheme.” He fell on a triple flip and got his legs tangled in a choreography sequence during his free skate to an Elton John medley but he smiled after that second misstep because it was inconsequential and didn’t ruin his experience. “That one I can totally laugh off, looking at it in hindsight,” he said. “I had a great time at nationals and really enjoyed myself.”
With 328.01 points, he finished more than 25 ahead of 17-year-old runnerup Ilia Malinin (who was not chosen for the Olympic team), nearly 38 ahead of third-place finisher Vincent Zhou and almost 39 points ahead of fourth-place finisher Jason Brown. Zhou, who was sixth at Pyeongchang, and Brown, who placed ninth at the 2014 Sochi Games, also were nominated to compete in Beijing.
Zhou is capable of brilliance but is erratic; Brown is a mesmerizing artist but can’t land the quadruple jumps that boost scores in the point-based judging system. Chen is the only realistic medal hope in that trio, though he insisted otherwise. “I think this team is incredible, just the amount of experience we all have, the amount of work that we’ve put in,” Chen said. “I think regardless of anything we’re going to be able to have great skates there.”
The Americans’ best efforts still might not seriously push Hanyu, who has been trying to become the first skater to land a 4½-revolution quadruple axel jump. Hanyu nearly pulled it off at the Japanese championships but two-footed the landing. “Long before I even competed against him he was sort of that benchmark for what an exceptional figure skater should be,” said Chen, who defeated Hanyu by more than 31 points for the 2021 world title.
Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou, who finished behind runner-up Ilia Malinin, are nominated along with national champion Nathan Chen for U.S. Olympic team.
Chen, who paused his studies at Yale to prepare for the Olympics, hasn’t decided if he will compete beyond this season. His performance at Beijing might influence his decision, he said, “If I’m not particularly satisfied with the skate.” As of a few weeks ago, he was still deciding whether to stay with the programs he performed at the U.S. championships or bring back his Nemesis/Eternity short program and Mozart-based free-skate programs from early this season. “It’s all about connection and emotion when it comes to selecting these programs and doing these programs,” he said.
What’s most important is that he has done all he can to put his dread behind him and have a joyful Olympic experience. “I’ve certainly grown a lot and gained a lot of experience over the past four years,” he said. “The Olympics are such an extraordinary competition. Nothing like it. To be able to have four years in between that to continue growing is, I think, a really great thing.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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