NEW YORK — Nathan Chen’s skating career could have come to a very early end.
When Chen was 3 years old, he went to the rink with his siblings; Chen is the youngest of five. When the public session concluded, he refused to leave the ice. It wasn’t until the Zamboni was about to clean the rink that Chen’s mom carried him out — kicking and screaming, she says.
“I don’t remember too much of that,” Chen says with a laugh. “I was kind of young.”
Fortunately, Chen returned. He kept coming back to the point that he soon developed into one of America’s best young figure skaters. Now, at 18, he’s a U.S. champion and almost certainly this nation’s best shot for gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics — something Chen says he has a “pretty high chance of” as long as he sticks to his plan and remains healthy.
He’s also become a ground breaker by loading his program with quadruple jumps. Ever since the four-revolution jumps became a staple of the sport in the 1990s, Americans have lagged behind. No longer, because Chen pretty much is the king of quads, having once done an unprecedented five in a free skate.
“That’s HARD,” says two-time Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, rolling his eyes at the thought. “When I would do quad-triple-double, I would lose power for much of the program. Five quads?”
Chen smiles when asked if his recent achievements — at the Rostelecom Cup he reeled off four quads, including a spectacular opening quad lutz-triple toe combination and a quad-double toe-double cascade in the second half of the free skate in beating 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu — have pressurized things heading toward South Korea.
“I have my own life to live,” he says “and to let that get to me would be defeating the purpose. I have confidence in how I’ve trained and prepared myself. I’ve dreamed about the Olympics for a long time and it would be kind of silly and a waste to freak myself out.”
Instead, Chen just might freak out the competition with his technical skills. Not that jumping alone is enough to win international titles, and Chen has worked hard on his presentation.
Indeed, he’s never been purely a jumper and having taken ballet — his sisters were in classes — has helped with his choreography. This season, Chen, coach Rafael Arutunian, choreographers Lori Nichol (free skate) and Shae-Lynn Bourne (short program) have put together two routines that not only fit his style, but play off the energy and difficulty of what Chen is doing on the ice.
He is skating to “Nemesis ” by Benjamin Clementine for the short program, and music from the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer” for the free skate.
Chen has a deep appreciation for music; he dabbles in playing guitar, took up piano and even the violin, which he had “no passion for.”
He also believes having done gymnastics and played hockey aided in his development as a figure skater. After a photo shoot for the Olympic-themed box cover of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Chen pondered how those sports contributed to his current occupation.
“It’s helped me be a more-balanced athlete, which I think is very important,” Chen says. “It’s strengthened me, too.”
While some see Chen’s rise in U.S. skating as meteoric — he went from winning the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2015 to U.S. bronze as a senior the next year to U.S. champion last January — it’s actually been a steady climb. That he has reached such a lofty status as a teen-ager bodes well for the future.
Of course, he needs to stay healthy, and doing all those quads in practice and competition could be tempting fate. In 2016, a hip injury curtailed his season, forcing him to drop out of the world championships.
Chen was bothered at worlds this year by boot problems — duct tape was needed — and finished sixth. Although he doesn’t dismiss that performance, calling it a “learning experience,” he recognizes such issues are somewhat fluky.
Maybe he is due some good karma during the Olympics — he needs to finish in the top three at nationals in San Jose, California, just after the new year. During the Sochi Olympics, when Chen was 14 and preparing to go to junior worlds, he was home training when he fell and broke his hand.
“My triple axel was kind of wonky and I essentially punched the ice when I fell,” he recalls. “Originally they put me in a splint and all I could ask was, ‘How am I supposed to jump with this one?’ Then they put on a little cast and I knew I could skate with it.
“It never was a problem. One time I collided with another skater, but I was more ticked off than anything. Not hurt.”
Chen remembers setting up a television at the rink to he could watch the 2014 Games between workouts. It’s far more likely everyone else will be watching him on TV come February — as a medal contender at Pyeonchang.