SAN JOSE, Calif. — The last time Nathan Chen saw skaters competing for a national championship during an Olympic season, he couldn’t imagine dealing with the pressure.
A 14-year-old junior skater, he sat just a few rows from the ceiling in a packed arena trying to put himself in the boots of the women skating in a career-defining moment.
“The energy was incredible,” the Salt Lake native said of the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in 2014. “I was trying to think about myself in their shoes, and even at that point in time, it was pretty nerve-wracking.”
Four years later, the 18-year-old has a long list of records and accomplishments that make him the heavy favorite to earn his second U.S. championship and first Olympic appearance, including the fact that he hasn't lost an international competition this season.
While he acknowledged the added pressure, he also said he’s looking at this weekend’s U.S. Championships as just another opportunity to perfect the program he hopes to take to PyeongChang in February.
“I have been to Nationals during an Olympic season before, but this is the first time I’m eligible, the first time I’m able to have a chance to make that (Olympic) spot,” Chen said in a teleconference last week. “It’s definitely a different feeling. … The season has gone well for me, and I’m pretty excited to get out there on American soil and perform the programs that I’ve really enjoyed all season. This is just another step for me.”
Last January, Chen became the first U.S. man to land two quadruple jumps in a short program and four quads in a long program. He finished third behind skaters who attempted two quads between them, and it reignited a debate about whether the sport should reward athleticism more than artistry. That discussion has persisted, even as Chen and other skaters, including reigning world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, have followed Chen’s lead in making quads a vital part of any successful program.
Advocates insist it’s pushed the sport to new heights, while detractors claim that rewarding skaters for even attempting a quad undermines the traditional emphasis on artistry.
Chen has stayed above the fray, with a friendly but reserved personality, he insists that he is simply following his heart.
“I love jumping,” he told the Deseret News in an interview in September before he went on to win every major Grand Prix in figure skating this season. “I have always loved jumping. I love watching jumps. I love doing jumps.”
That does not mean, however, that he doesn’t value the emphasis on storytelling.
“Skating is a very beautiful sport,” he said, “and I love watching new programs.”
Chen said he will compete with two quads in his short program on Thursday afternoon, and he will attempt five quads in his free skate on Saturday night. He shrugs off the fact that attempting so many quads has meant most of the top men’s programs have been flawed this season.
“I think we’re really trying to push ourselves,” he said. “Obviously there is a limit …we’re trying to figure that out. We know what we’re capable of doing.” Chen has enjoyed a meteoric rise and success that the U.S. hasn’t seen since Evan Lysacek’s 2009 season, which ended with his gold-medal performance the Vancouver Olympics — where he attempted zero quads.
There will be plenty of competition for the former student of Ballet West Academy, including former U.S. champions Jason Brown, Adam Rippon and Max Aaron. Thanks to Chen and Brown and their performances at the World Championships, the U.S. has three spots available for male figure skaters on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in PyeongChang.
“I don’t want to do anything super different than I’ve done,” he said. “I just want to clean things up, be consistent, take things step by step. Every competition is different. … You can’t plan for everything that happens.”
Chen said he hasn’t changed much about his approach to competition in the past year.
“I’m just trying to use the experience that I had last year and learn,” he said. “Everyday is a new day, and ultimately, I have to figure out what works each day.”
He said he and his coaches are constantly reviewing what works and what needs to change, from equipment to choreography to costumes. But more than anything, he’s tried to enjoy the unique and thrilling ride his talent has offered him, even as journalists probe him about how much pressure he feels as the ‘great hope’ for U.S. figure skating medals in PyeongChang.
“Yeah, when you say it like that, I definitely think there is additional pressure,” he said on that conference call. “I’m happy with the way this season has gone. … This is what I’ve wanted for a long time. I just have to remind myself to embrace it and enjoy everything.”
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are being broadcast on NBC Sports, with the men's short program scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (MT) Thursday, with the free skate airing Saturday at 6 p.m.