This time last year, Nathan Chen was just starting to realize he could make the Olympic team.
Now, the 18-year-old believes a gold medal is not just possible, but probable if he stays on track the next three-plus months.
Last season, Chen came back from major injury to become the youngest U.S. champion since 1966 and the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one program.
He beat reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue.
Though Chen was later sixth at the world championships, he chalked that up to faulty boots that required duct tape.
Sure enough, Chen opened this season in earnest by beating Hanyu again at the first event of the fall Grand Prix season.
In 2010, a 10-year-old Chen, dressed like a toy soldier, predicted on national TV that he would be at the Olympics in eight years.
That’s just part of the story of the youngest of five children to parents who emigrated from Beijing. Chen began skating at age 3 on a 2002 Olympic practice rink in Salt Lake City.
The Olympic reality is near.
Brands have noticed. Since the start of April, Chen signed with Coca-Cola, Nike, Bridgestone and Kellogg’s (plus another major company expected to be announced this week).
Chen sat down for an interview Monday while promoting Kellogg’s, which is putting him on Corn Flakes boxes.
OlympicTalk: What were you thinking when this happened last week?
Chen: First of all, I had no idea what was happening, actually, because I hadn’t realized I had won [his fall Grand Prix season opener in Russia]. Second, Raf [coach] Rafael Arutunian was like super, extra making a big deal. I was excited about that moment, but I wanted to keep it inside me. That’s who I am. When Raf, like, freaked out, I was like, oh God. It is a funny moment. I’m glad Raf was very happy about it.
OlympicTalk: Has Raf ever been that excited after a program?
Chen: No, not really. I think he was really excited I had a win in my first [Grand Prix] competition of the season. Plus, it was in Russia. He has a lot of attachments there [born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, coached in Armenia and Moscow].
OlympicTalk: Did you want to compete against Hanyu in the first Grand Prix?
Chen: Honestly, at that point, I had no choice [in determining if he was in the same Grand Prix with Hanyu]. In a way, no, not necessarily, just because it’s a big thing right at the start of the season. There’s definitely a lot of improvement that both of us can do. It kind of depends on how we took our offseason. But, at the same time, you have the opportunity to compete against someone who will be one of the top contenders. To see how you place against them early in the season gives you a good benchmark of where you are. That was a nice opportunity. To see that I could be on top that early in the season is very reassuring.
OlympicTalk: Where do you want your technical content, your jumps, to be come nationals, come the Olympics, in your free skate specifically?
Chen: I kind of set the benchmark for five quads, but at the same time I’ve been held back a bit in GOEs [lower-than-hoped grade-of-execution scores from judges marking the quality of his jumps]. That’s something that I can improve on a lot. That’s kind of where my mind is set — quality instead of quantity. Especially since at worlds, [quantity] didn’t really play out for me [trying six quads in the free skate with duct-taped boots and falling twice].
Heading into the Olympics, I’ll definitely focus a little bit more on quality of the jumps and all of the performance and all that just tying together for a more full-packaged skate. But, at the same time, five quads is still a lot of quads. It’s still a challenge.
OlympicTalk: If I had asked you a year ago, what are your chances of winning an Olympic gold medal, what would you have said?
Chen: Probably next to none, honestly. Even making the Olympic team would be a stretch if you asked me that a year and a half ago. Especially since I hadn’t gotten [quad] flip and [quad] Lutz, and all of these guys were already doing flip. I had no experience in senior. A lot has progressed.
OlympicTalk: Today, what are your chances of winning an Olympic gold medal?
Chen: I know for sure that I’m top five right now, at least top six. I think that, on any given day, we could all be standing on top of that podium. I think I have a pretty high chance of winning as long as I stick to my plan, stay healthy and focus on all the little details.
OlympicTalk: Do you want your programs at nationals in January to be exactly as they are for the Olympics in February, or will you still be ramping up?
Chen: It’s hard to say at this moment, just because I don’t know exactly how I will feel around nationals time. But nationals is definitely a good time to do a test run before the Games. It’ll be pretty close to the Games. There won’t be high stress.
OlympicTalk: You met Elvis Stojko recently.
Chen: The meeting was super, super brief. I wasn’t expecting that. I was training with [choreographer] Lori [Nichol in Toronto] right after Russia. I was sitting in the locker room. He popped in. I was like, oh wait, that’s Elvis. That’s cool.
OlympicTalk: Do you look at your sixth-place finish at worlds in April as more a product of the boot problems or being fatigued at the end of your first senior international season?
Chen: It’s largely about the boots. I wasn’t able to get the training time and the intensity that I needed heading to worlds. There’s only so much that I can rely on from the past few months of training.
I don’t think that [fatigue] really was much of a big deal. Also, the Games are in February, and I know that last February I was strong.
OlympicTalk: How long do you want to compete?
Chen: This is just the start of my career. I just became one of the medal contenders in seniors. To just pull off after this season, I haven’t been able to accomplish enough. I think that I would still love to continue for another four [years].
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