When Nathan Chen enrolled at Yale in the fall of 2018, his California-based coach, Rafael Arutunian, was concerned about Chen being able to keep up his level of skating with essentially a phone and FaceTime coaching arrangement.
Since then, the Yale sophomore has won all nine of his competitions, including a world title, two Grand Prix Final titles and a third and fourth straight U.S. title. His performances to beat two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at last season’s World Championships and at this season’s Grand Prix Final were both simply brilliant and also the best of Chen’s career.
With the 2020 World Championships beginning March 18, NBCSports.com/figure-skating recently spoke via telephone with Chen, 20, about Arutunian’s acceptance of the coast-to-coast separation, the rivalry with Hanyu, and Chen’s plans for next season.
Rafael was very excited after visiting you at Yale in February. What was it like having him there for the first time?
I thought he was able to see what my whole training program looked like and what my life looked like. We walked around campus, and he really enjoyed it.
Did you get a sense that it made him appreciate why you chose to go to Yale, so far from him?
I think he started to understand that when we were walking around, just from looking at architecture and spending time with a couple of other students. He recognizes and appreciates that finally I have an opportunity to broaden my reach outside of skating by not being in a traditional ice arena atmosphere with the same people every day. He has a new perspective on me being here.
Note: After the four-day visit, Arutunian said to me in a text: “Lots of smart kids and beautiful buildings. I totally agree it was the right decision [for Chen to be at Yale]. He made a good choice.”
After the free skate at nationals, Raf told me he was astonished you were able to skate so well after being literally knocked flat by the flu until about 10 days before the competition. Did it astonish you?
I was happy I was able to do that, but I have been in situations where I have been ether sick or injured, and I have had to compete. So, I have kind of learned how to do that. But, yeah, I was pleasantly surprised with how things went. [Getting through] the programs was definitely easier than I thought. Stamina was definitely an issue going into that competition. Halfway through the program, I wasn’t as gassed as I thought I would be. I was pretty proud I was able to get through it without generally dying.
From what Yuzuru Hanyu said at the Grand Prix Final, it seems everything in his mind now is geared to trying to beat you. Do you think you are in his head a little bit?
Having this sort of competition is definitely making him approach programs this season differently than if I were not there to compete against him. Without him, my approach would be different too, and it would influence some of the decisions I make in in my programs. It goes both ways.
So, you are both in each other’s head?
I think saying we’re in each other’s head has a negative connotation, and I don’t believe we are influencing each other negatively. I think it’s definitely positive. We are both trying to figure out the best way to approach a competition so we can come out on top. If you consider it from that perspective, yeah, I think we’re both in each other’s head.
In a good way?
We’re not like throwing bad voodoo out to mess with psyches. We’re pushing each other. At least that’s how I picture it, and I would imagine he is pretty similar.
Will you spend any time training in California before worlds?
I won’t, unfortunately. We have spring break [March 6-23] before Worlds, but that’s too tight of a timeline, so I don’t think I will go back.
Let’s talk about whether you will stay at Yale next year. Apparently one factor is that as you have moved into upper-level courses, the time and scheduling demands have become more complicated. Is that correct?
That’s a big part of it.
After three semesters at Yale, has it surprised you have been able to do these two difficult things so well?
I am surprised. I had doubts coming here that I was going to maintain skating and school. For reference, I was doing all home school for two or three years [before the 2018 Olympic season], and I took a gap year for the Games. Home school is an opportunity to continue studying, but the learning environment is completely different than it is here – the level of study, how rigorous it is. I wasn’t sure what that was going to be like.
As the semesters have gone on, I learned how to study a little better, and I think that learning how to study is a huge part of succeeding in school. And it kind of goes the same way with skating – learning how to prepare.
One thing I didn’t realize before getting here was how in selection of classes you can make it a very easy semester or an incredibly hard semester. I think I overloaded my plate too much with hard classes the first couple semesters. [This year], I got into a class that meets only once a week, and that incredibly eases my schedule. All these things I should have considered, you don’t know about until you are there.
What are your plans for the next off-season and summer?
I’ll be doing shows, but the priority will be going back to California and maximizing the time I have with Raf and determining whether or not I’m coming back [to Yale] or taking a gap year. I might take an online class through Yale over the summer just so when I come back for the next semester or future semesters I won’t have to have quite as hectic of a work load.
Is it still possible you will return for your junior year this fall?
I’m 50-50 on it right now.
Will what happens at worlds affect your decision?
The results of worlds, and the results of the school year plus considering what classes I will have to take the following year all will definitely influence me. [Chen is majoring in statistics and data science.] The classes will be pretty tough, and I’ll have to max out the science credits, which means a lot of labs. And I don’t know how well I’ll be able to manage that. I have to figure this out for myself.
Back to skating for a final question. Do you think at Worlds you will need more than the four free skate quadruple jumps you did at nationals?
Probably. I saw online that Yuzu is planning a quad Axel. I really hope that he does, because it is going to be amazing to see. If he does, and I want to have a fighting chance, I’ll have to up the quad count. But if by the time I get to Worlds, my quads are all over the place – which could totally happen – then it’s more logical to do four and skate very, very clean. Assuming everything is to plan, I assume I’ll do something similar to what I did at the Final [five quads].
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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