The spring Swedish sunlight in Stockholm was fading fast on Nathan Chen’s face Saturday evening as he addressed a roundtable of reporters from around the world in his hotel room.
A digital roundtable, of course.
It had been over three hours since Chen, the 21-year-old American, had won his third consecutive ISU World Figure Skating Championships title, a gold medal different than any other he had won in his career, competing in front of an empty cavern of arena seats – and coming from behind, having suffered a fall in the short program, his first major mistake in a program in over two years.
A medal ceremony at the arena was followed by a flurry of interviews and then drug testing. Back in his hotel room, black hooded sweatshirt on and having just done an Instagram Live with Olympic champ Meryl Davis, he was still being asked to reflect – and look forward as to what comes next.
“I felt almost a sense of relief, I guess, after the short program, having made a mistake, having been in a position where I'm like, ‘I don't know if I'm really in a position to vie for first anymore,'” Chen told the reporters via Zoom. “So I was just kind of like, you know, ‘I am going to try my best in the long program and whatever happens, happens.’ And it kind of just took away some of the stress.”
What happened, as figure skating fans well know, is Chen skated perhaps one of the best free skates of his life, landing five quadruple jumps – including the quad Lutz he fell on in the short – and skating spectacularly with his Philip Glass music to overtake both short program leader Hanyu Yuzuru, the two-time Olympic champion, as well as Kagiyama Yuma, who had been in second.
Chen on Hanyu: 'I still get pretty starstuck'
The win, which marked the first time since Patrick Chan’s trio of worlds victories 2011-13 that a men's skater has gone three in a row means Chen has won every worlds since the PyeongChang 2018 Games, where he finished in fifth.
In fact, he hasn’t lost a competition since then – 10 international titles in a row. He heads into the Olympic season in the lead up to Beijing 2022 Games as the sport’s current top skater, even as the legendary Hanyu remains very much a factor for a once-in-a-century trio of Olympic golds.
“He's won two Olympics,” Chen said of Hanyu. “You know, I think that's the bottom line. And I have won zero. So that kind of puts him in a completely different airspace than I'm in.”
The two competitors, however, have the utmost respect for one another, Chen said, often only seeing one another at the biggest competitions in the world – their most recent had been the Grand Prix Final in 2019 – where they’ve gotten to know each other bit by bit over the last five years.
“In the brief moments that we do communicate, he's a very genuine person, very nice person,” Chen described. “And I really enjoy being able to talk to him. He’s someone that I've grown up watching and [am] just inspired by from 2014 to 2018 to [today]. He's just been around a long time and has been consistently successful in producing for a very long time; that's really, really challenging and impressive.
"And he's one of those athletes where when you see him, you're like a little starstruck. Even now, like when I see him, I still get pretty starstruck by seeing him.” - Nathan Chen on Hanyu Yuzuru
“I was always worried, like growing up as a kid, that having competitors would mean that there'd be like unnecessary drama and a lot of tension, he continued. “And I've honestly never felt that within my time competing against him or the [other] top guys. It's always been very amicable. Everyone's been very respectful of the amount of work that everyone else is putting it. That's pretty awesome to have.”
Chen speaks out on violence against Asian community
For the second worlds in a row and fourth time in a decade, the men’s podium has been occupied by three Asian skaters. As hateful rhetoric and violence against Asian people has seen an uptick in the United States, Chen, son of Chinese immigrants and the youngest of five siblings, said those kind of actions are “unacceptable.”
“I'm disgusted by the amount of hate and violence that has occurred [against] Asian Americans in the U.S., it's just unacceptable,” he said. “It's really disheartening to see that. But hopefully the more that this is brought to people's eyes and the more repercussions are being placed upon people that do these things, hopefully [that] will put an end to this soon. But I mean, my heart goes out to all the other victims that have been unjustly attacked. It's really tough to see as an Asian-American.”
Chen credits his mother, who came to the U.S. with few resources, for helping him become the person that he is, saying the focus in his family had always been around hard work and doing your part.
Focusing on what's next while learning from experience
There is plenty of hard work ahead of him as he heads into the Olympic season, though he is still unsure if he will compete in the World Team Trophy event, set for Osaka, Japan, 16-17 April. (Skater list is to be announced soon.)
He will spend the late spring and early summer planning his programs for the coming year, back to work with coach Rafael Arutunian at their base in Southern California, and with a team around him that he credits for his aforementioned mentality going into the free skate in Stockholm.
No panic, just – a common figure skating phrasing – trusting his training.
Chen said he’s grown in leaps and bounds since his nightmare performance in the short program at the 2018 Olympics, when he was 17th heading into the free skate.
“I think that just having experience of making mistakes and still trying to figure out ways to get back has been really useful in training and competition. Not every single day will I go to training and be like, ‘Oh, I'm on top of my game.’ Things can’t always go super,” he said.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I have that experience at the  Games, which was a great teaching moment, as well as kind of a disappointing moment, of course,” he said.
“But I think having had that experience now going into this competition, it definitely helps me retain some resiliency, I think. And I think that definitely, you know, thankfully came into play today.” - Nathan Chen on learning from the 2018 Olympics
An eye on Beijing 2022... when the time is right
Chen will not return to school at Yale until after the Beijing Games, and instead of trying to wrap his head around what he’s accomplished in the sport, he’d rather appreciate just being there, hinting after his win that he might not continue to skate post-2022.
Regardless, as the men’s field continues to strengthen, with the likes of fellow medallists Hanyu and Kagiyama, as well as fierce performances at worlds from Uno Shoma, Mikhail Kolyada, Keegan Messing, Jason Brown and more, he chooses to look at the little things he wants to continue to improve on.
“I saw things [this week] that I want to get better,” he said. “And this is definitely also a lot of my team speaking through me. But I really appreciate that. And I think that that's really useful as an athlete, because as soon as I start becoming complacent in what I do, I don't think I'll be able to be good anymore. So I'm happy that that's where I'm currently at and definitely want to keep trying to improve as much as I can.”
Going into the 2017-18 season, he was a newbie, still a teenager and only with one U.S. title to his name, having been sixth at worlds the year before the Olympics.
“At the end of the day, who doesn't want to be a three-time world champion? So I think that's already really cool to have,” he said, smiling. “So I'm not going to say that I regret having that. Of course, I'm excited about that.
“But at the same time, every competition is different, every competition is challenging, and it has its own challenges for every athlete. I'm excited to take it step by step. I think that with anything, if I try to take things in bites that are too big, I'll end up choking a little bit." - Nathan Chen on his approach heading into an Olympic season
He reminded himself – and the reporters – he’s still got to earn his spot for the Games in the first place.
“I’ll take it piece by piece from there and then build my way up to the Games,” he said. “And of course, I still have to qualify for the games too. I'm not even there yet. So [I have to] get all these things done.”