On a quintessentially sunny Southern California day in late September, three-time world champion figure skater Nathan Chen is engaged in an end-of-practice jump-off with training partner, fellow American Mariah Bell, inside their practice facility in Irvine.
Chen is speeding into quadruple toes as Bell launches one triple Lutz after the other. They’re both exhausted from a long practice under the watchful eye of coach Rafael Arutunian, but there is a youthful spirit about them.
You’d never know the Olympic figure skating was looming just weeks away.
“This is a very big season; It's the Olympic season,” Chen told Olympics.com a day earlier, in an exclusive interview.
“I'm just really excited for [it]. [I'm focusing] on every single step from now until Olympics: Do the steps as best as I can and prepare as best as I can,” the 22-year-old American continued. “So by the time I get to the Olympics, whatever I do, as long as I try my very best, I'll be happy and fulfilled with the results. And that's definitely the approach that I'm having now and my mindset going to the Olympics.”
Chen is the three-time and reigning world champ in men’s singles, having also captured five consecutive U.S. domestic titles, the most for any American man since the venerable Richard “Dick” Button won seven in a row from 1946-52.
Chen kicks off his competitive season with two back-to-back Grand Prix Series events: Skate America this weekend (22-24 October, Las Vegas), and then Skate Canada the next (29 & 30 October, Vancouver).
It’s at Skate America that he’ll look for a fifth title in a row, too, something that’s never been done in the men’s field. (And only accomplished by Michelle Kwan in the other disciplines.) It’s the same event where he kickstarted a 2017-18 season that seemed pointed to the podium, only to finish fifth at the Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018.
That’s partly why Chen’s approach, mentioned above, is so different ahead of Beijing 2022.
“I think the 2017-18 season specifically was just a really, really stressful time,” said Chen, who nearly missed the free skate after an error-strewn short program in PyeongChang. “I was obviously set on hopefully winning a medal. My thought process was if I spent an extra four hours in the rink - whatever amount of time working out and training - I would be able to make that happen. But I ended up taking away from my rest and recovery time. I felt like I started to stagnate.”
“I think the biggest thing right now is just learning how to balance, pushing hard on the ice, but also giving yourself time to rest, to recover and generally take care of myself.”
A matured Nathan Chen
Chen has not lost since the last Olympics – winner of 10 international golds, including those three world titles and two Grand Prix Finals; he’s also tacked on three additional U.S. titles in that span.
He’s stayed a consistent force as two-time and reigning Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru has continued to loom large in a sport that rarely sees athletes go for two Olympic podiums, much less three. The arrival of Kagiyama Yuma, Hanyu’s Japanese compatriot, on the world stage last year, was one to take note of.
Those three men – and the likes of 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma, 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou and the ROC’s Mikhail Kolyada – could very well be the final group in the men’s free skate come 10 February.
Midway through his interview with Olympics.com last month, Chen was tasked with recording a video message to himself, to be aired during Beijing. He took a deep breath before beginning.
“Remember from the last Olympics, what that felt like, and know that you have this opportunity to truly enjoy this Olympic experience for the first time. So utilize that. And just be there, be present, enjoy your experience as much as you can.”
Since 2018, Chen spent two well-documented years going to school at Yale while also competing. In the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down universities and halted global sport, Chen returned home to California where he has remained since, training alongside Bell and other top skaters, all under the watchful eye of longtime coach Arutunian.
“He’s found strong pieces from [his] past, accumulated this maturity and growth,” Arutunian, who has coached many Olympic-level skaters in his career, said in an interview. “I’ve been working with him for 10 years and I’ve been giving him [tools] this whole time. I’ve only been guiding him... but he’s found the best of himself; I think people will be surprised [this season].”
The influence of Shae-Lynn Bourne
Chen is a mix of artist and technician. He’s one of the biggest jumpers in the world, with consistent four- and five-quadruple jump free skaters and a triple Axel that was once his most challenging element that he’s worked into consistency.
A growing closeness with three-time Olympic ice dancer Shae-Lynn Bourne, now a renowned choreographer, has helped him settle more into the expressive side of his skating. His programs, which he has held close to the vest ahead of the season, are layered with complexities and emotion, something he says Bourne has helped bring out of him.
“Shae-Lynn brings a lot of positivity to the rink, especially when things start to get a little bit stressful,” Chen said. “I really like the way that she rationalizes the world, rationalizes movement, rationalizes artistry. It's in a way that doesn't feel at all pretentious, but very genuine and very, very pure. It's something that I definitely would like to embody in myself.”
Chen has also worked with ballet expert Michelle Mills on his off-ice movement, and since winning his third consecutive world title earlier this year, he started seeing a mental performance coach to talk through the mental side of things.
“It’s just great to be able to have a fresh perspective on my mindset... and how to prepare myself mentally,” Chen said. “He’s a psychologist at heart, so it's nice to be able to have that on my team, as well.”
Keeping it light – to go hard
On the same day as his interview, Chen sat down with cameras rolling to strum some chords on an acoustic guitar, which he had purchased at the beginning of the pandemic. He has an electric one, too, and is a skilled pianist from childhood.
Music – on and off the ice – has been a shaping force in his life.
“My brother played guitar and I... I was an impressionable kid,” he laughed.
Then he turned his focus to his furthered focus on music on the ice itself: “I just try to remember and tap back into the music [when competing]. I always try to skate to music that I really love... and that helps me just stay grounded, stay geared into what I'm trying to attempt. And I allow my body to go on autopilot... keep my mind as clear as possible.”
A clear mind is one of the lessons he learned at 18, when he struggled to shrug off the Olympic pressure in PyeongChang. Beyond the guitar there is also basketball, skateboarding, a love for the Utah Jazz (he grew up in Salt Lake) and a bevy of friends, Bell included.
'It's nothing to be afraid of'
When asked what he loves about skating the most, he’s quick to respond: “Seeing my friends. Training with them and working hard every day.”
Fear can be fickle for any high-achieving athlete, but Chen seems to be at peace with his fear of failure – or what might happen as a result of it: It’s something he acknowledges and accepts, but doesn’t dwell on any more.
“Having had that experience of the Olympics and knowing what it's like to sort of fail on the biggest stage, you know, it's nothing to really be afraid of,” he said.
Then he added: “I think we definitely learn the best from our mistakes and just being like, ‘Hey, why did that happen and how can prevent that?’ Having had that experience, obviously it wasn’t fun and it’s not something that I would want to do again. But it happened... I'm still who I am. I still had opportunities to continue competing in the future, continuing to strive towards my goals.”
“I'll still continue working and trying to do what I want to do and win or lose. It doesn't really change me as a person.”