Nathan Chen has had little down time at Yale University since the beginning of his first-year classes in late summer.
The reigning figure skating world champion had embarked in August on a journey unlike almost any other in the history of the sport. Not only was he trying to blend both full-time college studies and competitive skating, as other champions had successfully done in the past, he was trying to do it with limited input from a coach who was 3,000 miles away.
His skating practice schedule includes a one-hour round trip to a nearby rink. His courses this semester include calculus, statistics, abnormal psychology and Listening to Music.
But it’s typical of Chen that when he had a break from classes last week, he used it to take on another challenge.
He went into an empty common room at one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges and sat down at a piano that was, to be polite, in need of some TLC.
Chen, 19, later said the exercise wasn’t just for fun and relaxation but rather to see if he remembered how to play the instrument, on which he had achieved a solid level of proficiency nine years ago but played little since.
Judging from the video snippets Chen posted on Instagram, the answer is yes.
In one, he performed part of the free skate music his U.S. teammate and good friend, Mariah Bell, is using this season. In another, he poked fun at his own skills and gave praise to singer-instrumentalists after trying to accompany himself on a Rainbow Kitten Surprise song called “Mr. Redudant.”
His comment overlaying the video: “MAD PROPS TO PEOPLE WHO SING + PLAY PIANO BC BOI IS IT HARD.”
Truth be told, what Chen is doing also deserves mad props.
Not only is he undefeated this season going into this week’s world championships in Saitama, Japan, Chen has been able to more than hold his own academically at Yale, saying there were “some As and Bs” on his first-semester transcript.
And, as with the piano, he hasn’t forgotten the important basic skating techniques that have helped him land one landmark quadruple jump after another.
“I’m proud he has still kept the skills he has been worked on all these years,” Rafael Arutunian, his coach, told me in a telephone interview last week. “His jumps are stable and strong.”
Still, Chen knows a shaky effort at worlds will raise doubts about the current path he has chosen.
That helps explain why, despite all the times Chen has expressed pleasure over his first-year experience at Yale, he is committed only to being non-committal about his plans beyond this academic year.
It seems likely he will request an academic leave for all or part of the next Olympic season, 2021-22, but Arutunian hopes Chen can take some time off before then.
Yale regulations allow undergraduates “in good academic standing” to take two terms of leave, which do not have to be consecutive. Yale also allows some students to take a third term of leave if they are doing accelerated classwork (graduation in six or seven semesters of work rather than the usual eight), and Chen mentioned on a media teleconference last week he intends to take some courses this summer.
“He’s a special guy, and I think he needs special treatment (from Yale),” Arutunian said. “I would like to see that happen.”
After Chen’s dazzling performances to win a third straight U.S. title in late January, Arutunian emphasized how important it had been that he and the skater were able to spend nearly three weeks together at the coach’s Southern California training base during Yale’s Christmas break.
They could have had another pre-competition stretch together last week, with Yale on spring break. But the coach thought a week was too short and would have made the sessions too intense. Chen also was suffering from a cold and decided to stay in New Haven before leaving Saturday and going directly to Japan, cutting down his travel.
“I didn’t want to see him right before a competition because he would try too hard to impress me and get tired,” Arutunian said. “We had enough time before nationals that he could work hard the first week and go easier after that.”
Arutunian said he has even limited the number of video chat coaching conversations the two have to avoid taking time Chen could be using for practice or school work. The coach is impressed with how well Chen has handled remaining one of the world’s best skaters and studying at one of the world’s best universities.
“For how he is doing in studies at Yale and in practicing most of the time by himself, he’s doing excellent,” Arutunian said. “He can’t just go home and rest after practice.”
But Arutunian recalled, almost wistfully, the way Chen had looked late last August at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp (an evaluation session), which came after they had spent several weeks of concentrated training time together.
“He was doing so well it was amazing,” Arutunian said. “Everyone was shocked to see how well he was doing all the elements.”
The most encouraging thing about Chen’s skating this season is it has gotten better, with increased technical demands, as the season has gone on.
In his first individual event, October’s Skate America, his short program combination included just two triple jumps. By the next event, it was a quad-triple. Over Chen’s four competitions this season, his short program aggregate technical base value has gone from 39.96 to 41.97 to 43.05 to 47.67.
The progression has been similar in the free skate: three quads in the first two events, four in the next two, and a base value jump from 84.01 at Skate America to 94.39 at nationals.
A year ago, Chen did five free skate quads at nationals, all judged clean, and then a history-making six at the Olympics and worlds. (Nine of his 12 Olympic and worlds quads got positive Grades of Execution; the others all got full rotational credit.) But Chen said he might have been doing fewer quads now even without the extra time demands of college.
This season’s new rules have played into his tactics. Cutting 30 seconds from the men’s free skate, being able to repeat just one type of quad and having more reward for clean elements and more penalty for mistakes all encourages trying fewer quads. In the Grand Prix Final and nationals, Chen did a quad Lutz, a quad flip and two quad toes.
“Based off the way the season has been going and the rule changes, what I’ve been doing definitely is the right move,” Chen said. “Regardless of whether I was in college, I would probably follow a similar track. As of now, I’m happy with everything.”
That does not preclude Chen pulling out a fifth quad in the free skate this week. He tried a quad Salchow at his second Monday practice in Japan.
Chen has lost just one competition the past two seasons – the 2018 Olympics, in which a hot mess of a short program put him in 17th place. That he rallied to finish fifth by winning the free skate easily over eventual gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was both a consolation prize and a needed confidence boost for Chen, who also had bombed the short program in the Olympic team event.
Chen went on to win the 2018 worlds without Hanyu, who was still recovering from the foot injury that nearly undid his hopes to win a second straight Olympic gold. As he seeks a third world title, Hanyu’s health is uncertain again after another foot injury has kept him out of competition since November.
How well Chen skates at worlds will factor “to some degree” in his decision about whether to enroll at Yale for next fall. He has until August to decide.
“It depends on what my goals are in skating,” Chen said. “I can always find time to continue my education. Skating has more of an end date.”
His skating schedule after worlds is to include appearances in nine of the 13 Stars on Ice shows in April and May, and he might return to Japan for the World Team Trophy in mid-April. Both are lucrative gigs.
Chen has no reservations about his answer to the question of how well he has managed his dual obligations, especially given the immediate naysaying from some critics when he struggled competitively early in the season despite winning.
“Has it gone better than you hoped?” Chen was asked.
“Definitely,” he said. “(And) it was just an experience I didn’t want to give up on before I ever tried it. I’m glad I gave myself the shot to attempt both.
“I’ve really, really enjoyed myself being in college, and I’m happy with the way things have been going there. Skating has been going well too, so I can’t really complain.”
Not when Nathan Chen can play the complicated score to his life well enough that it sounds like harmony in a major key.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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