Nathan Chen landed a record seven quadruple jumps at each of his two most recent competitions. He may try for eight this week in a bid to become the youngest men’s world champion of all time.
The 17-year-old wunderkind, who spent two months last year in a leg brace, is the star attraction of the world figure skating championships in Helsinki.
Chen is certainly a favorite to earn the first U.S. men’s worlds medal since 2009.
He’s arguably the man to beat for gold, coming in with the highest total score in the world this season.
That mark was set at his most recent competition last month, the Four Continents Championships, where Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea.
Chen faced repeated questions about gold medals in a media call last week and refused to bite on outside expectations.
“This is my first worlds,” he stressed, twice. “It’s already in itself a big stepping stone for me to be at my first world championships and competing against everyone together in one event. This is the same people, basically, who will be competing at the Olympics. But a lot can change, as you’ve seen with me, in the course of year.”
Chen, the 10-year-old darling of the 2010 U.S. Championships, would have made his senior worlds debut last season. But he aggravated a hip injury at the U.S. Championships exhibition gala in January 2016. He needed surgery. It took two months before he could walk without a brace.
Now, after rehab and a steady rise of a season, Chen downplays talk of possibly toppling Hanyu and two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.
“From a technical aspect, of course, I think I’m at that level to be able to make the podium, at least,” Chen said. “But it just really depends on what [other skaters] do and how clean I’m able to perform.”
It was believed that if Chen landed his record seven quadruple jumps between two clean programs — like he did at nationals in January and Four Continents in February — and Hanyu has two clean programs, then Hanyu wins.
But on Monday, Chen showed in practice that he may attempt an additional quad in his free skate.
On the same day, major Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun ran a story hyping a Chen-Hanyu clash at worlds with an infographic comparing the two skaters’ scores from Four Continents.
“I’m not going into the competition scared that I’ll be outdone [by Chen],” Hanyu said, according to the newspaper’s translation (though it is unclear if they are recent comments or from last month). “Rather, I want to go for perfection.”
Hanyu, who broke scoring world records last season, has not been perfect this season.
He had major jumping errors at December’s Grand Prix Final (where a clean Chen outscored him in the free skate) and in both programs at Four Continents (where Chen topped him in the short program).
If Chen does eight quads, that’s two more than Hanyu’s typical total this season, and three more than Fernandez, but skating is not all about jumps. The veterans can still outpoint Chen in other areas.
Chen proved last month he can handle the pressure. He competed on the 2018 Olympic rink right after Hanyu posted the highest free-skate score in the world this season. Chen, cushioned by a short-program lead, did enough in his five-quad program to hold off Hanyu’s charge.
Chen landed his first quadruple jump at age 15 and by last season was up to four quads in a free skate. Now, he could try six quads in his free in Helsinki.
“Even when I was younger, I never really saw an end to where we could take jumps,” said Chen, the youngest of five children to parents who emigrated from Beijing. “But I never really thought that I would be doing the stuff that I’m doing.”
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