DETROIT – For the first two seasons after Nathan Chen moved up to the senior level of international skating competition, Chen’s life revolved around his commitments to the sport.
Chen’s high school studies were done through correspondence courses, allowing him to have a schedule that prioritized his time practicing at a southern California rink with coach Rafael Arutunian. He became an immediate success internationally, and in the second senior season, he won a world title, a Grand Prix title, finished fifth in the Olympics and dazzled the world with his quadruple jump exploits.
And he also was a runaway winner in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Championships.
At 19, Chen was ready for new academic challenges.
But he still wanted to do more in skating, a sport with time and travel demands that few elite competitors have succeeded in combining with a full course load at college.
For Chen, that meant turning his life inside out.
MORE: Chen commits to Yale
He enrolled in August at Yale, moving 3,000 miles from Arutunian, allowing coach and skater to interact directly about technical skating issues only occasionally via FaceTime. That has frustrated Arutunian, who would prefer to see Chen every day.
And some in the skating world would make a headlong rush to judgment about Chen’s ability to pull this off after he had a badly flawed performance in his first competition of season, at the free skate-only Japan Open in early October.
Since then, Chen has won Skate America, won the Grand Prix France, won the Grand Prix Final and, Saturday, delivered an exceptional short program to take a 13-point lead over Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou going into Sunday’s free skate at the U.S. Championships.
“Overall, everything is playing off exactly as I had hoped it would,” said Chen.
But that makes it sound as if there haven’t been moments when Chen wondered if that would happen, especially because his skating in the “regular season” Grand Prix competitions, while good enough to win, was not at the level it had been.
“I managed my best possible, but I didn’t skate as well as I wanted to,” Chen said.
“Of course,” Chen said. “There were times when I was really struggling with them both, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the two.”
He began to have serious doubts before Skate America, which involved a coast-to-coast-and-back trip just before his first Yale midterms. He knew that a flop at Skate America would likely keep him from qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.
“I felt there was a lot of pressure there,” he said. “I just took that for the good I could get out of it. I try to focus on using that to develop myself as a skater and a person.”
He was mixing quad Lutzes and courses in calculus, chemistry, Spanish and English. He had to schedule his own ice time, both at Yale’s on-campus Ingalls Rink, where he skates by himself for 60-to-90 minutes from Monday through Friday, and another rink nearby. He had to keep professors apprised of when he would be absent for competitions, which has been the case this week.
“Professors have been okay with it, and they have been accommodating with quizzes and assignments,” Chen said.
Chen said his first semester grades included “some A’s and Bs.” In the second semester, which began 12 days ago, he is taking two courses in quantitative reasoning, math and statistics, and two more courses “TBD” – to be determined.
He would apologize for using “TBD” to answer several questions, including how long he would stay at Yale before likely taking a break to focus on preparations for the 2022 Olympics. At this point, he intends to continue for at least one more year.
“I’m really loving being in the college atmosphere, being able to have something to do outside of the rink, being able to focus on things that are, in my opinion, equally as important as the time that I spend on the ice,” he said.
“Whereas in California, it’s everything just structured around skating, so if you have a bad day, that kind of carries on throughout the rest of the day. But here [Yale], you have the opportunity, if you have a bad day on the ice, you can have a good day outside of the rink. I think that mood change carries over for the next day.”
One of the concessions Chen made to his demanding schedule was initially to minimize, in terms relative only to himself, the number of quads he would do in competition. The man who had been credited with a historic six quads in the 2018 Olympic and world championship free skates, landing five cleanly each time, is satisfied with trying four in Sunday’s free skate.
(A change in the scoring system this season also made it less worthwhile to risk as many quads, on which failures now are penalized more severely.)
Chen did two quads, as usual, in Saturday’s short program to a version of the jazz classic, “Caravan.” His quad flip and quad toe, triple toe combination both came off magnificently, the latter earning eight maximum (+5) Grades of Execution and one +4. Once the jumps were out of the way, he began playing to the crowd.
The judges, clearly carried away by his enthusiasm and the crowd’s appreciation, went over the top with their marks, giving him 16 perfect component scores (10.0). Such largesse is common at national championships around the world, with judges feeling gigantic scores will eventually sway the minds of those who evaluate the skaters at ensuing world championships and Olympics.
Or maybe they were just giving Chen extra credit for making the grade so far in both the rink and at one of the world’s leading universities.
As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
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