Nathan Chen Is Winning by Not Trying So Hard to Win
BEIJING — Nathan Chen, the favorite yet again to win the Olympic gold medal in men’s figure skating, is caught between wanting to forget the 2018 Games and needing to remember them.
Before the figure skating competition started at the Beijing Games, he stood before reporters and was asked if he had regrets from his Olympic debut, when he uncharacteristically faltered in the short program and ruined his chance of winning a medal.
“I have a pretty terrible memory,” he said, making it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it with his second Olympics just days away.
Chen, 22, was more willing to be introspective about a week before he left for the Games. In an hourlong video interview, he described how finishing 17th in the short program in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was the worst moment in his young life. But also, in many ways, it was the best.
It’s nearly impossible to go to the Olympics as a gold medal favorite without letting that gold medal become all-consuming, and Chen found that out the hard way, when his obsession with winning became what he called “his demise.” But after going into Pyeongchang feeling “uptight all the time” with a sense of dread that he wouldn’t live up to expectations, this time he is trying to appreciate the experience — win or lose.
Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion who sometimes skates where Chen trains near Los Angeles, helped him find a new approach, he said. Chen appreciated that advice because he knew Lysacek could empathize with him: he finished fourth at the 2006 Olympics before winning the gold medal four years later.
“He said, win or lose, you’re going to go home and you’re going to continue the life that you had,” Chen said. “And that’s honestly very reassuring because I think that oftentimes you kind of dramatize things and are like, ‘Oh, man, it’s the end of the world if things don’t go well,’ but really, no, the world continues to turn and things will go back to normal.”
At Yale University, Chen discovered a life outside skating.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Gaining that perspective, Chen said, helped make him who he is today — and for the past three years he has been the world’s most dominant skater, including in the short program on Tuesday when he landed a series of rocket-launched jumps and won with a world record 113.97 points.
Chen is on the cusp of becoming an Olympic champion. The free skate is on Thursday (Wednesday night in the United States).
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“Sometime between the short program and the free program four years ago, it allowed me to sort of switch perspectives on what was really important,” he said.
Four years ago, Chen had been sucked in and marketed by the Olympic machine. He was an 18-year-old rising star, tabbed as the next great American Olympian, with sponsors gravitating to him and pressure threatening to crush him.
He was featured on Cornflakes boxes. Had his photo on a billboard in Times Square. The American team and the world expected him to win an Olympic gold medal. The problem was those expectations soon started to feel like demands, and he internalized them.
It became win a gold medal, or bust.
Considering that looming pressure, it was perhaps no surprise that he made mistake after mistake in the short program in the team event, and then did the same in the men’s singles event. The night he finished 17th in the short program, with the gold medal out of reach, he called his sister Alice for support.
Nathan, the youngest of the five Chen children, isn’t the type of person to share his emotions, Alice said in an interview last month, so he mostly listened as she talked and talked. She cried through her words.
“I don’t want you to think this defines you as a person or what you bring to the sport,” she recalled telling him. But most of the conversation was about anything but skating; she wanted to distract him from his disappointment.
“It was the most emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life,” she said, explaining that the whole Chen family was devastated when Nathan didn’t skate his best. They knew what he had sacrificed to get to the top of the sport.
Following his sisters into the rink when they were figure skaters, Nathan took up skating at 3, and was a fan favorite from the start. Alice Chen remembers him at his first competition, when he wore a blue velvet suit and the only jump was a tiny hop. His family came to watch. The crowd went wild.
Paying for his lessons was not easy for her parents, who came to the United States from China in the late 1980s, Alice Chen said. There were times their mother would drive Nathan 10 or 12 hours to a competition because it was too expensive to fly. Sometimes they slept in their car because they couldn’t afford a hotel. Those experiences helped mold Nathan, she said, but the family never made him feel as if he owed them anything.
They only wanted to see him happy, she said, and at the 2018 Games he wasn’t.
“I hope I helped him decompress,” Alice Chen said of her late-night telephone conversation with Nathan. “The next morning he woke up a totally different person.”
The new Nathan Chen bounced back like the Olympic figure skating world had never seen before, hitting six quadruple jumps to win the free skate and rise to fifth place. He has had four years to process what he went through.
For months after the 2018 Winter Games, he toured with Stars on Ice before enrolling at Yale University, where he skated alone on the campus ice rink or trained at another rink about 20 minutes away. He met other Yale athletes, made friends on the hockey team, learned how to study and keep up with students who, he said, “were all virtuosos in their fields.” In short, he discovered a life outside skating.
Now on a leave of absence from school, Chen trains with the coach Rafael Arutyunyan and a group of other elite skaters, including Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic and Mariah Bell, an American national champion. Both are competing in Beijing.
Adam Rippon, a 2018 Olympian who helps coach Bell, noticed a big change in Chen.
“I think it took him focusing on school and working every part of his brain to finally realize that skating was not life or death, and that perspective took some of the pressure off,” Rippon said. “I can see him stepping into his light and owning who he is. He’s more confident, totally confident in himself now.”
During the pandemic, Chen, Brezina and Bell built a tiny training bubble and spent time with each other off the ice, too, playing games like Pictionary and Cards Against Humanity on weekend nights and eating dinners together at Brezina’s house, with Brezina’s wife, Danielle, who is a former skater, and their 2-year-old daughter, Naya.
“Nathan is the first in the rink and the last one to leave and also wins all of our game nights,” Bell said with a laugh. “But we still love him.”
The Brezinas got to know Chen well during the pandemic. They would see him watching a university lecture on his iPad at three times the normal speed because he processed information so quickly, and would marvel at him as he tried to teach their daughter how to play guitar and piano on kid-sized instruments, but of course, as a perfectionist, he had to tune them first.
“It was so interesting to learn how his mind worked,” Michal Brezina, a four-time Olympian, said. “He’s good at everything.”
Brezina said Chen had matured a lot since 2018 and is far less fixated on winning.
“I think it helps mature you when you learn how to deal with something that doesn’t go the way you planned,” Brezina said. “It teaches you that you are human.”
Chen has let that sink in. He may seem invincible now, but he knows that could change in a second. And he’s OK with that.
“Ultimately, I think within my career I’ve learned that you learn the most from your failures, and that’s how you can grow the best,” he said. “The ultimate goal is just to be able to look back on your career and say, ‘Hey, you know, that was great.’”