Clad in a face mask and fresh of a historic fourth Skate America title win in Las Vegas, Nathan Chen had one problem: His cell phone battery was running low.
A few minutes later Chen found a charger, but it was a reminder that Olympians – and in Chen’s case, a two-time world champion – are just like the rest of us when it comes to everyday life.
Chen on the ice, however, is a megawatt jumper and growing artist. His win at Skate America came under strict COVID protocols, with athletes entering into a competitive “bubble” and no fans being allowed on site to watch.
He still excelled, capturing his 10th Grand Prix gold medal as well as his 11th consecutive event victory since finishing fifth at the PyeongChang 2018 Games.
“I think all the skaters are just really happy that we were given an opportunity to compete,” he said about Skate America, which was limited to American athletes or skaters that train in the U.S. “A place to be able to feel safe about what we're doing and to be able to show off some of the work that we've been doing. I think this is something we’re all really happy about.”
Beijing on the brain
Chen, who also helped the U.S. to a bronze medal in the team event in 2018, could have been happier about his performance. Though he beat second-place finisher Vincent Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medallist, by 24 points, he doubled a planned quadruple Salchow and then popped a triple Axel at the end of his free skate, two mistakes that he addressed with reporters after.
At this level, the top of men’s figure skating, it’s about trying to achieve (near) perfection in the most high-pressured of situations, usually in programs that include three, four or five quad jumps, the hardest in the sport.
“There were things that I was thrilled about (and) things that I was a little disappointed,” about, too, he said of his skating in Vegas. “But, you know, we're all human. We make mistakes. So I think that is something that I can take forward and work on to improve for the next couple competitions.”
With Grand Prix events in Canada and France cancelled in the coming weeks, as well as the Grand Prix Final set for Beijing in December now up in the air, there is uncertainty as to what the rest of the season looks like.
But Chen continues to be fueled by an event that is suddenly only 16 months away: The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
“(The Olympics) are the end goal,” he said. “It's the driving force behind a lot of what we do and a lot of the decisions that we make."
“That’s definitely the largest motivation behind most of the athletes right now.” - Nathan Chen to Olympic Channel, on Beijing 2022
COVID changes and technical challenges
The pandemic has impacted Chen’s life much like the rest of ours: He’s moved back from being a full-time student at Yale in Connecticut, returning to southern California where his coach, Rafael Arutunian is based. He’s auditing a couple of classes, but no longer enrolled academically, and has taken up tennis, is trying to read more, play music (ukulele, guitar) and figure out a new routine in his new reality.
He’s spending more time in the kitchen, trying out traditional Chinese recipes from his parents, and finally learning how to make dumplings. He’s found new vices, too: Doughnuts. And bubble tea.
He also drove to Las Vegas from the Los Angeles area, bringing with him a basketball that he used to shoot hoops while away from the competitive ice area.
It’s unclear when he’ll skate again, but it might not be until the U.S. Championships, set for mid-January, in San Jose, Calif. As the technical bar continues to rise in the sport of figure skating, he’ll look to hone his jumping skills and work on a triple Axel which has – at times – been a thorn in his side.
"Skating has already progressed so much (that) I think you'll see these guys and girls start attempting bigger jumps. But in the near future, I mean, it will be interesting to see how far we're physically going to be able to take our bodies to rotate around.”
“I think this competition goes to show that even though we have these elements, they won't necessarily show up every time we do them,” he said. “So it's good to continue working on that consistency, especially given that we haven't competed in a while… use this as a base in which to grow on.”
Perhaps work on a quad Axel or quintuple jump? Chen isn't speculating for himself.
“As for quad Axel and quints… I mean, I would love to see people start working on that,” Chen explained. “It would be really, really interesting to continue trying to push the sport forward as much as we can. And I think honestly, at this point, like even if you may or may not see it in the next couple of years, you definitely will see attempts and potential successes in the next four or five years because of the fact that most of the guys in the junior levels and (some of) the girls are doing quads. Skating has already progressed so much (that) I think you'll see these guys and girls start attempting bigger jumps. But in the near future, I mean, it will be interesting to see how far we're physically going to be able to take our bodies to rotate around.”
Below, excerpts of the Instagram live conversation with Chen, which you can watch here, as well. (Edited in part for length and clarity. Watch the full interview and the end of this article.)
Olympic Channel (OC): There are lots of uncertainties right now in skating, in sports. How do you stay focussed on getting better when so much is unclear?
Nathan Chen: As logistics go for this season, the most immediate competition (for me) will be nationals. And if it's enclosed in a bubble, again, at least we have the opportunity to compete. Hopefully that will still happen. At the minute, the biggest event I'm looking forward to hearing about will be the Grand Prix Final, although it's been postponed. It’s an Olympic test event where it will take place in Beijing. It'll be at the arena that the Olympics will be at. It (would) be nice to be able to be able to scope out the venue, understand how logistics run throughout that competition to sort of prepare myself for, in theory, (competing there).
OC: What was the experience like competing without an audience at Skate America? How did you go about harnessing the energy that oftentimes can come from the crowd?
Chen: I think that we're all very used to practicing without anyone watching us. Generally speaking, most of the time there are only two or three people in the audience when we're practicing coming into a competition. I think just given the fact that we're used to doing programs and doing all these things without a crowd didn't make it too strange of an experience. And also, we had a lot of time prior to coming here, even knowing that, you know, there won't be audience, there will be cardboard cutouts (of fans). There will be silence throughout the program.
I think the main difference is that while we're competing, we tend to think skaters draw from the energy of the audience. And (us skaters) can very clearly hear what's going on in the audience, and especially when we're doing well. That was definitely lacking a little bit. But overall, you know, it's just (that) you’re here to do your job and do the best that you can. And I think that's what everyone came here to do.
Preparing for - and learning from - competitions
OC: Is there a way, as an athlete, to mentally prepare for something like that? The fact that you have no crowd, no energy to pull from.
Chen: At the end of the day, (it’s) just trusting your training. Fortunately, most of the elite athletes had quite a decent amount of time to train before this competition. And it was, given the pandemic, a bit of a concern heading into the early half of the season. I think having that sort of mindset go into the competition helps: Knowing that this is still an ISU Grand Prix event… this is still, you know, a very important opportunity for us.
I think combining all of that together put us in the right mindset to be able to go into the competition with whatever success we can get.
Truthfully, I don't want to make mistakes. I don't wanna make excuses for myself. You know, I made a mistake and I own up to that and will fix it for next time. - Chen on his learning process
OC: What will you take from this event (Skate America)? You have some things that you want to go back and work on at home, right?
Chen: Absolutely. Both those jumps are typically my nemesis sort of jumps. I'm not a big fan of edge jumps. I was having a little bit of trouble with those jumps in the warm-up, and I think I (that) got to my head a little bit. And truthfully, I don't want to make mistakes. I don't wanna make excuses for myself. You know, I made a mistake and I own up to that and will fix it for next time.
I still haven't had a chance to look over film and figure out exactly, technically, what went wrong. There’s things that I can do differently in preparation in case things don't feel right in the warm-up. Beyond that, just trust myself a little bit more. I think I had some doubts going into some of those jumps knowing that I can do it. … It will definitely require a couple days of analysis before I'm able to determine exactly what I need to do. This is something that I can definitely fix and – looking forward to future competitions – that I'll be able to sort of, you know, redeem myself on those jumps.
Back in California - and feeling grateful
OC: How has it been to be back in California, training with Raf (coach Rafael Arutunian) and the group of athletes that you do?
Chen: I was at college for the past two years. But given the pandemic, I decided to take a little bit of a break since everything was online. I'm currently taking some time off of school just to focus on skating and the next Olympics. And it's been great. I mean, I train with Mariah Bell, who just won the women's event… which I'm really proud of her for. I'm really proud of her. She puts in a lot of work. She works very hard.
Just having that elite atmosphere is really, really beneficial, to us as skaters. (It) continues to push us day in, day out.
But I think also, just to take a larger perspective, and I've sort of mentioned this in other media, I just I think that as elite athletes we're so single-minded. I'm like, ‘Okay, we need to train. We need to do this and that. And this is the competition and all that.’ But given that this pandemic has been affecting everyone, and we were athletes complaining, ‘Oh, maybe we don't have the ice time’ or whatever, you know, we should all take a step back and realize how fortunate we are to at least have that be our only concern. A lot of other people are struggling a lot more given the pandemic… that is their main concern.
OC: On that topic, what do you feel as though you’re most thankful for in your life in 2020? Most grateful for?
Chen: I mean, I'm grateful for the fact that my family, my friends, everyone close around me are staying healthy, staying happy, staying positive.
They’re doing the best that they can given the constraints of the pandemic. Being privileged enough to be able to have ice (time), to be able to have good friends that are able to continue to push me on the ice (as well as) a coach that's also there to motivate me and get me into the position that I want to be competitively.
I think those are all the main things. And I'm also just really impressed with how everyone's staying strong, staying as motivated as they can, doing everything they can to stay healthy, to keep their community healthy. And, you know, just be a better society. A better community at large.
2021 goals... and dreams of a Serena meet-up
OC: When you think ahead to 2021, what sort of resolution or goal do you set for yourself?
Chen: I've been trying to spend a little bit more time to read and stay engaged with what's going on socially in the U.S. I think just being able to be a little bit more engaged socially would be great. And I'm very impressed with how people are doing everything they can to fight for what they believe in.
I saw some numbers of the youth going out to vote (in the U.S.), which I think is very impressive considering in 2016 that was a pretty terrible turnout for the youth (vote). I'm really impressed with everyone doing that.
And as much as I can, (I want to) continue to stay engaged, stay educated, know my place in society and just be as positive as I can.
OC: Did you see – a fan is pointing this out to me – that Serena Williams said you were her favourite skater? What do you think about that?
Chen: Oh, I mean, I'm a big fan of her. I've never met her. So hopefully in the near future I'll be able to meet her.
I mean, she's the GOAT; someone that is an extremely huge role model. You know, I actually picked up a little bit of tennis during quarantine (in) the month that I was off the ice. My coach is a big tennis player. We ended up playing tennis with him a little bit.
It’s incredible to see what (Serena) does and how much is able to be a role model to young black girls and even just to the population at large, being able to see how she's able to come through hardships and still continue to succeed. - Chen on tennis champion Serena Williams
There’s a lot of doubters, a lot of haters… and (to see) how she's able to put that behind her and still achieve her dreams and her goals. It’s pretty incredible. And I know that she has a daughter now. So, if at any point, you know, they would like to come... just speaking out loud, if you'd like to come to the rink to skate. I'd be happy to give them a tour on the ice. There's that. (Laughs).
Chen's message to his fans
OC: What would you like for your message to fans to be as we wrap up? What would you like for them to know?
Chen: I mean, just my heart goes out to everyone that has been struggling through this time. And I hope that through whatever that may be, we are all able to find some positivity and some motivation to continue trudging forward. And I give extreme respect and credit to everyone that has been doing everything they can for social justice. They have been standing up for what they believe in, standing up for who they are.
I hope that, you know, through all of this, we are able to see some change. And, as skating goes, thank you guys for supporting skating, supporting all the athletes. We put a lot of time and effort into this sport. And it really feels great to be able to feel respected and to recognize that this is not all for nothing… we (skaters) all share that sentiment.