KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen wanted to put U.S. men’s figure skating back on the world stage after a seven-year medal drought. He chose this week’s U.S. Championships to try to become the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in one program.
The 17-year-old wunderkind landed all of them cleanly en route to the best performance in nationals history Sunday.
A record score (318.47 points; previous best was 274.98 under a 12-year-old judging system). A record winning margin (55.44 points; previous best was 32.71). The youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.
Consider the message sent to the world.
Now, is an Olympic gold medal possible in PyeongChang in 13 months?
“I believe it’s possible, yeah,” Chen said after bringing the curtain down at the U.S. Championships on Sunday. “It’s still in the distance for me. There’s so much room I have to improve to make myself at that level, but I think it’s definitely possible.”
In terms of jumping, Chen needs no improvement. Previously one of a few men to land four quads in one program, Chen now stands alone. He landed seven quads between two programs at Sprint Center, including four different quads in the free skate.
Chen next goes to the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue next month, and then the World Championships in Helsinki in late March. No U.S. man has earned a worlds medal since Evan Lysacek‘s title in 2009. Chen can end that drought.
“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen, the youngest of five children whose parents emigrated from Beijing, said of the U.S. men after the short program. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”
Maybe others will join Chen in the future, but for now he is the only American medal contender.
He’s joined on the world championships team by Jason Brown, who attempted zero quads this week but hopes to add one or two for worlds after getting over a Dec. 16 stress fracture in his right fibula.
Back to Chen.
The Salt Lake City native who started skating at age 3 on a 2002 Olympic practice rink first put the world on notice at the Grand Prix Final in December.
That’s the second-biggest annual figure skating competition. And the most exclusive, taking the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix season.
He struggled in the short program, falling on one quad and stepping out of the landing of the other. Cut him some slack. It was his first time skating under that kind of pressure.
But Chen dazzled in the free skate, landing all four quads for the top score that day and a silver medal overall. He bettered Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by 10 points and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain by 20 points. Hanyu tried four quads, falling on one. Fernandez tried two quads.
Chen came home from France and set out on improving upon that free skate by re-adding a quadruple Salchow to his quad Lutz, quad flip and two quad toe loops.
“It’s something that I knew I was capable of doing,” Chen said. “It wasn’t exactly a game-time decision [for nationals], but I prepared it, and it was something I was ready to do.”
He actually tried all five at his first two events this season but fell twice in each program. It was an audacious move to go for, given it marked Chen’s first competitions since January hip surgery that kept him off the ice for five and a half months.
“Life often tests us, it puts us through examinations, and Nathan gets all sorts of scrutiny from it, too,” his coach Rafael Arutyunyan, said recently. “But this young man walks out of all such pressing situations as the winner. He behaves like a real man.”
Chen’s timing, breaking out one season before the Olympics, just about matches his talent. He’s creating buzz not seen in U.S. men’s skating since 2010.
Which brings this to mind: Seven years ago, a 10-year-old Chen was the youngest skater at the U.S. Championships.
Chen could barely see over the boards, but he won the novice division and brought an exhibition gala crowd to its feet and sheepishly said he thought he would be at the Olympics in 2018.
A month later, American Evan Lysacek won the Vancouver Olympic title without attempting a quadruple jump, beating noted quad practitioner Yevgeny Plushenko. Chen calls Plushenko his favorite childhood skater.
Figure skating scores are of course about more than how many times one rotates in the air (from the landings of those jumps to artistry and more), but the result was slammed by some as setting the sport back. The 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic champions had all landed quads.
Canadian Elvis Stojko, the 1994 and 1998 Olympic silver medalist, said as much in a Yahoo Sports column titled, “The night they killed figure skating.”
U.S. men’s figure skating went dormant after Lysacek’s victory. They have not earned a world championships medal since.
At the 2014 Olympics, the top U.S. finisher was Brown in ninth. Brown did not attempt a quad, but the top eight men did. Every year from 2013 through 2016, the U.S. Championships crowned a new men’s champion. None of them have proven dependable when it comes to clean quad jumping.
“We’ve kind of not had the results we should have had over the past few years,” Chen said in a press conference Sunday, sitting next to Brown.
Meanwhile, Chen continued to rack up novice and junior titles while training ballet (“I enjoyed it more for a social aspect than an actual artistic aspect”) and playing hockey. He no longer plays hockey and cut back on the ballet.
In November 2014, Chen landed his first quadruple toe loop in competition. He’s added three more quads in the last two years working in Los Angeles under Arutyunyan, the Armenian who also coaches U.S. women’s silver and bronze medalists Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell.
Then, last year, he became the youngest man to finish in the U.S. Championships top three since 1973 (and the first U.S. man to land four quads in one program). Chen aggravated a hip injury later that night in the exhibition gala and needed surgery. He couldn’t walk without a brace for two months. No World Championships.
Chen spent weeks away from Arutyunyan this fall, working in Michigan with Marina Zoueva, who guided the last two Olympic ice dance champions. Chen wanted to improve his artistic marks. He’s done that, and since going back to Arutyunyan around Thanksgiving has incredibly upped his jumping game as well.
Chen followed his record free skate Sunday by sitting down for an interview with the in-arena announcer. The leftover crowd applauded, and then Chan was nonchalantly asked what he was up to.
“Not much,” Chen said, “just skating on a normal sunny day.”Follow @nzaccardi