GREENSBORO, N.C. – Nathan Chen came to last year’s U.S. Championships in Detroit with a lot of uncertainty left about what would happen to his skating now that his time and energy were split between being an elite figure skater and being a freshman at Yale, 3,000 miles from his coach, trying to get training help via video chat.
Sure, he was still winning, both his 2018 Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final, but there were a lot of mistakes, a lot of inconsistency, a lot of questions about whether he could make his new normal work.
And then he blew the doors off the Little Caesars Arena twice, skating marvelously in both the short and long programs to win his third national title in a walkover.
Chen came to this year’s nationals after two magnificent performances at the Grand Prix Final in early December, where he routed two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by more than 43 points. That extended his winning streak to nine – including two world titles – since his fifth place at the 2018 Olympics.
Yet Chen still carried uncertainty with him because he had been laid low by a virus for two weeks this January, and its lingering effects meant only being able to train effectively again in the past week.
And then he blew the doors off the Greensboro Coliseum in Saturday’s short program, taking a commanding lead on a day when the top five finishers all skated impressively, with five clean quadruple jumps in five attempts.
Just when you think Chen can’t be better than he has… he is.
“That was probably one of the best short programs I’ve ever skated,” he said. “Everything felt really calm, really paced. I felt like I was really in control of everything I was doing.”
Quad flip. Triple Axel. Quad toe-triple toe. All received a flood of fours and fives (the maximum grade) for technical execution, as did his step sequence and final two spins. Among his 45 component scores, which measure quality of skating and artistry, were 11 perfect 10s.
That added up to 114.13 points, a whisker more than his score a year ago. He takes a lead of more than 13 points into Sunday afternoon’s free skate.
For all that, Chen knew there were things that could have been better, like his edge work in the footwork sequence and the artistry in his performance to “La Boheme,” the signature work of renowned French singer Charles Aznavour. He expects his short program choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne, to point out those flaws as soon as they speak next.
“She’ll tell me a million things I could’ve done better,” Chen said “Having people like that is awesome. It really keeps you in a grounded state of mind.”
Chen was followed in the short program standings by the consummate artist on ice, Jason Brown. He did a quad-less program with such extraordinary technical and performance polish it earned 100.99, with GOE marks even higher than Chen’s and 13 perfect components scores.
Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, has been erratic all season because of both a late August concussion and his ongoing battle to master the techniques taught by the coaching team – Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser – he joined 18 months ago. Saturday, he embodied their guiding philosophy for his skating: do everything with such high quality the execution grades can help compensate for the lack of a quad.
“It wasn’t just the concussion,” Brown said about his unremarkable performances earlier this season. “It has been a constant trial-and-error struggle. Sticking with all the changes with the adrenaline of a performance is what we have been working on.”
Andrew Torgashev (quad toe) was a surprising third at 97.87. Vincent Zhou (quad Salchow), the reigning world bronze medalist, was an almost unexpectedly strong fourth at 94.82, given that Zhou has turned his life inside out in the last month, taking a leave from Brown University after one semester of his freshman year and moving to Toronto to train.
Tomoki Hiwatashi (quad toe), the reigning world junior champion, was just behind Zhou at 94.21.
Chen, 20, continues to face constant challenges trying for excellence at the most demanding level of the sport and at one of the world’s most demanding universities.
He has been comfortable enough with the absence of a coach that the video chats with coach Rafael Arutunian, who is based in California, have become infrequent. They now see each other primarily at competitions and during holiday and summer breaks. The rest of the time, Chen coaches himself.
Arutunian tells his students they should be able to do that after three years with him. He has coached Chen for nearly 10.
“Raf trains us to be pretty self-sufficient even as kids,” Chen said. “By the time that we are at this level, we still need him of course, and he’s still a great guiding force in all of our training. But we generally know exactly what we need to get done that day.
“We’re the ones who have to self-correct as a program goes on. I think being able to understand how to orient practices and learn how to fix things on your own is a great skill to have.”
While Yale has been tremendously helpful in giving Chen ice time weekday afternoons at its busy on-campus rink, he does not learn until a few hours before what time it will be available, and he still has to drive 30 minutes each way to another rink for his second daily practice.
He does not have the access to support (medical team, training table) a varsity athlete does. Yet he takes off his hat to varsity athletes who have far more competitions each year than his five or six.
“These guys have tournaments like every other weekend, meets every other weekend,” Chen said. “Some of these athletes are some of the smartest people on campus. They do incredible, incredible majors – double majoring in a lot of crazy things with the demand of athletics. It’s really inspiring.
“That being said, I definitely think that because we (Yale athletes) have so much extra to do, extra obligations throughout the day, the times that we have to study are a lot more focused and a lot more intensive. I’ve seen a lot of other students who have all day to study but don’t really do much and procrastinate, do a lot of other things. I think having the balance (between sports and academics) definitely forces us to be a little bit more productive.”
Nevertheless, Chen thinks he will need time away from Yale to prepare for the 2022 Olympics. His courses in statistics and data science will include more lab work in his junior and senior years, and scheduling practice around them will be difficult.
Chen has already talked to his dean about such plans. She told him not to worry about it until the end of this academic year in May.
“Ultimately skating’s the most important thing as the Olympics come up,” Chen said. “So, I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.”
There is, of course, the idea that if something is not broken, don’t fix it. And Chen has done by far the finest skating of his career since enrolling at Yale, with short and long programs of surpassing brilliance at the 2019 nationals, 2019 worlds and 2019 Grand Prix Final.
“I feel like this is a great way of maintaining what I’m have (technically), but I still want to continue progressing,” Chen said. “Either way, I’ll figure out what’s best for me.”
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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