Two years removed from 2019 world title, Nathan Chen eyes a third in a row

With a call for safety at the coming ISU World Figure Skating Championships, the American says he’s ready for his first international trip in over a year. “I’ll just be there to compete.”

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

In need of a haircut yet otherwise prepared to take his first international flight in over a year, two-time world figure skating champion Nathan Chen is ready to defend his title.

The American, who won at worlds in 2018 and 2019 before the event was called off last year, will try to become the first male skater to go three in a row at worlds since Patrick Chan, 2011-13.

In his way is two-time Oympic gold medallist Hanyu Yuzuru, both skaters coming off respective domestic titles and set to face off for the first time since the Grand Prix Final, held in December of 2019.

“It's always a great opportunity for me to compete against him,” Chen told reporters on a conference call Thursday evening (U.S.).

“He's really the benchmark, the standard of what skating looks like. And it's been like that for the past many, many, many years. So it's always just a big honour for me to be able to compete against an idol that I watched watch while I was growing up." - Nathan Chen on Hanyu Yuzuru

“This time is no different.”

Safety No.1 priority amid a tough men's field

Chen captured a fifth U.S. national title in January in Las Vegas, the same venue where he won Skate America in October against a similar field. Both events were held with strict Covid-19 protocols in place. The International Skating Union has put in place similar restrictions for worlds, set for 24-28 March in Stockholm, Sweden.

Chen hopes all athletes and officials comply as skaters attempt to secure national spots for next year’s Beijing 2022 Winter Games. No fans will be in attendance.

“As long as everyone's staying proactive and being responsible about the requirements, [doing] what they're supposed to do, as well as having, you know, having repercussions for not wearing masks or doing other things, I think that'd be better,” Chen said, saying his number one priority for athletes was to keep healthy.

He added: “But ultimately, you know, ultimately I'll just be there to compete.”

Chen and Hanyu will be joined by 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou, the 2018 Olympic silver medallist Uno Shoma, a resurgent Mikhail Kolyada, the 2018 world bronze medallist, as well as familiar names including Jason Brown, Jin Boyang, Cha Jun-hwan, Kevin Aymoz and Keegan Messing.

Seventeen-year-old Kagiyama Yuma, the Youth Olympic Games champion at Lausanne 2020, will be making his worlds debut.

Back at worlds after challenging year

Chen said he will change little about his technical layout for worlds from nationals in January, where in the free skate he did four quadruple jumps - including three in combination. He had planned five quads, including Lutz, flip and toeloop.

“I don't think I need a change too much since nationals. [I’ll] probably run a similar play.”

After the 2018 Olympic team bronze medallist returned home to train in California last March and withstood state quarantine guidelines, he has only competed at Skate America (Oct.) and U.S. nationals (Jan.).

It’s a scenario that has provided a double-edged sword of sorts, he said.

“I think that not having competitions is actually kind of a loss just because you learn so much at competitions, whereas in training, you come in every day and you're a little bit more consistent with them, but you don't necessarily have, like, weird variables thrown your way that you don't really predict,” he explained.

“Not having competitions makes you kind of forget that sort of rhythm,” Chen continued. “And I think that having more competition helps get that. But on the flip side of that, yes, having more time to work the craft, more time to work basics, more time to talk about things that are not necessarily so program specific helps get you just a better foundation, I think, with whether or not that's necessarily directly seen in the skating. And I think it helps athletes feel a little bit more confident going into competitions.”

Chen vs. Hanyu: 'I'm excited to see him'

Chen is seeking his 10th consecutive international gold medal since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where he was 17th after the short program.

He said he was impressed with the performance of Hanyu at Japanese nationals in December.

Hanyu had explained a year of challenges in which he returned home to Japan to train from his base with coach Brian Orser in Toronto.

“I know how difficult it is to not train with your traditional training base... So for him to still look as sharp as clean this, you know, just well put together – it’s incredibly impressive,” Chen said. “I don't think he's lost anything. And if anything, he's gotten even better, which is just a testament to how great he is. I’m excited to see him. I haven't seen him in person in quite a long time. And just every time I get to get to compete against him, it's always a great honour.”

While Chen said he won’t mind the quieter, more isolated aspect of worlds with Covid social distancing protocols, he expressed optimism about the coming year, with the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games in July, followed by Beijing next February.

“I think the Tokyo Games will be an awesome sort of guide for what Beijing will look like,” he said. “I'm excited to see how things are going to be able to be run, and I'm excited to see how things might look for us ultimately, as an athlete, we want every opportunity for these major events. And the Olympics are at the next level. ... [Tokyo] will give us a benchmark for what Beijing will look like and using that as a sort of guide going into next season.”

Chen: I've been improving my mental health

In a year of challenges for everyone, Chen has tried to look inward to find improvement. Something he hopes will show out on the ice, too.

“I think as an individual [it’s] given me more time by myself, which means more time to think, more time to do all these things, which I guess inherently sometimes causes more anxieties or more stress,” he said.

“The past year I spent a little bit more time learning mindfulness and other sort of ways to improve my mental health; make sure that I'm as resilient and robust as I can be going into the following seasons." - Nathan Chen

“And I think that's definitely been something that I have found very useful, whether or not it really directly impacts my skating. Of course, the literature does say that it does impact athletic performance. I just think it generally gives me more peace and helps me relax and decompress at the end of each day.

“And then from more societal perspective, I think being able to recognize how lucky I am, how fortunate I am to be in the sport, to be able to have opportunities to come to the rink, to be in a safe environment.”