Nathan Chen was slightly surprised to learn figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go on as scheduled this autumn, albeit with localized fields.
“I actually thought that we would be doing some virtual competitions,” he said by phone Tuesday evening. “But that being said, I’m thrilled that we’re actually getting the opportunity to compete again.”
Chen, a two-time world champion undefeated since enrolling at Yale in 2018, hopes to vie for his fourth straight Skate America title in October, tying a record shared by Todd Eldredge, Michelle Kwan and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“Given that everything is right, I would love to be there,” in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25, Chen said. “But if things start to get a little bit shakier, I’ll have a little bit more questions.”
Chen already has quite a few questions.
“Obviously, how it’s going to look like,” he said. “What are the logistics of the competition? Will it continue to be held in Vegas? Or will the location be changed? Audience is also a question. Will there be an audience? What are the exact specificities with the judging system? How are the skaters going to be judged? Will it be all on site? Those are some questions and also, of course, who am I going to be competing against? Those are all questions that I would like answered, but time will tell and I’m not super concerned about those right now.”
The International Skating Union said relevant details will be shared as soon as possible by an ISU Council-appointed group along with organizers of the six Grand Prix events. The annual Grand Prix stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is in Beijing this season.
ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start, rather than the usual two, in the six-event series before the Final. Skaters will compete at the Grand Prix that makes the most sense geographically.
Chen left New Haven for his Southern California base in March, when the season-ending world championships were canceled one week before they were to start.
He couldn’t find a rink for training for two months, his longest time off ice since recovering from January 2016 hip surgery.
But, as restrictions eased, Chen and coach Rafael Arutunian began getting ice time. He trained consistently the last two months, focusing on individual elements and conditioning while not knowing if or when he would compete this autumn.
“It was kind of difficult to determine when do we start really deciding programs and when to start really training for a competition mindset,” he said.
Chen’s pre-pandemic plan was to move back to New Haven for his junior year and then take a break in the 2021-22 academic year to focus on the Olympics. But now, he’s leaning toward staying in California this fall, perhaps taking some non-core online classes. Most of Yale’s classes are expected to be held remotely.
“I’m going to take time off, I believe, because I just think that given the situation it’s going to be not really worth it to try to still attend while doing all this. I can just focus a little more on skating,” Chen said, noting he has two weeks to make a final decision. “I want to be able to return to school as a student rather than an online student.”
Chen also wants to compete this autumn in front of spectators, but he knows that’s not assured. He considered what it might be like while watching the NBA’s resumption with virtual fans and fake crowd noise.
“Having the audience to back you up during a program is huge, especially in the long program where you’re kind of gassed halfway through,” he said. “Hearing the crowd stand behind you is a big deal. You definitely feed off the energy that the crowd gives you.”
He is at peace with the abrupt end to last season, knowing that, at 21, he has many years of skating ahead. Chen is also understanding that Skate America might be his only top-level competition before January’s national championships.
“Given a normal season, absolutely, that’s not enough,” he said. “But considering the circumstances, I think this is the most that we can get. Honestly, I think we’re all totally on board with that. Literally, any competition that we’re given I think is a great opportunity.”
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