The wonk in Nathan Chen has ensured that even while he is taking time off from attending college, he isn’t taking time off from studying.
Chen, a rising junior at Yale, decided last fall was as good a time as any to begin a leave of absence from school to prepare for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics because his classes would have been remote even if he had been in New Haven, Connecticut.
But he got friends to send him the textbooks he will eventually be using in chemistry and advanced statistics courses for a little light reading.
“Nothing super serious,” he said during a Zoom interview last week. “Just trying to get through a chapter a day.”
After two seasons of questions about whether he could remain among the world’s leading skaters with a full course load at a university 3,000 miles from his coach (the answer was an emphatic, “yes”), Chen came to realize that the balance between school and skating helped him with both.
On the skating side, Chen’s results speak for themselves as he seeks a fifth straight title at the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas, with the men’s short program Saturday and free skate Sunday.
Since matriculating at Yale in the fall of 2018, Chen has won a second straight world title, a third and fourth straight U.S. title, two straight Grand Prix Final titles and 11 straight competitions. His dazzling performances at the 2019 worlds and 2019 Grand Prix Final produced the two highest free skate and total scores ever under the current system.
“I miss it,” Chen said of being at Yale, where he is majoring in statistics and data science. “Having the change of mind as you switch from skating to school is a nice break from skating.
“[I miss] being able to spend time with friends, go to study groups and work with TAs (teaching assistants) and professors, to feel you are being mentally stimulated in a way you don’t find skating. I still find that a little bit because I’m keeping up with the material. Of course, it’s very different without the exams and homework and stuff like that.”
He was on campus until March of last year, when the pandemic led Yale to send its students home. Chen finished his sophomore year with final exams that he took online from California, and he intends to formally resume his education in the fall of 2022.
Chen’s longtime coach, Rafael Arutunian, frequently said in the past two years how he wanted more face-to-face time with Chen. Chen told Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports in August that he had originally been likely to return to Yale for the 2020-21 academic year and then take a leave in the 2021-22 academic year, but the pandemic changed his plans.
“I was surprised by not only how well he did the last two seasons but because he kept everything we did years before,” Arutunian said. “I also wasn’t surprised because if you build something well, it lasts longer. The surprise is he kept everything for two years.”
The pandemic and California fires have presented new challenges for Chen. His rink shut down for the first nine weeks of spring. He wears a mask while training in a high intensity sport, and the mask took on a dual purpose when smoke from the fires infiltrated the rink.
His apartment building was evacuated because it was close to one of the fires. That occurred as he was driving back from Las Vegas after winning a fourth straight Skate America title in late October, leading him to spend a night with his brother in San Diego.
“A lot of people are struggling a lot more than elite athletes, so I don’t think there is much to complain about,” Chen said. “Man, we get this opportunity, so make the most of it.
“I’m just really appreciating the fact that I have training time, healthy training mates and people that are being responsible and staying safe — and going to nationals and having the opportunity to compete.”
Chen is on the verge of becoming the first man to win five straight U.S. singles titles since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button in 1950. (Button would extend that U.S. streak to seven before retiring from competition with two Olympic gold medals and five world titles.) Chen fully understands the significance of being linked to Button, the greatest – and most dominant – skater in U.S. history.
“Dick has a name that has been around forever and definitely was a source of inspiration [for me] growing up,” Chen said. “[Winning a fifth straight] can be something I can cherish dearly the rest of my life.”
Since results became less predictable with the end of compulsory figures after the 1990 season, only one man other than Chen has won more than two straight titles (Johnny Weir, with three). And Chen’s huge margins of victory attest to his national dominance: 55 points in 2017, then 41, 58 and 37.
“For now, I don’t compare anyone to Dick Button,” Arutunian said. “If Nathan continues to build his skating, he can be like Dick Button.”
Chen’s historical peers at the U.S. Championships – some of the men who also won four straight national titles – are impressed by what he has done so far.
From Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion: “He has won at every level, and that hasn’t prevented him from continuing to want more and move forward. Technically he is solid, or should I say, ‘perfect.’ There isn’t a moment when he’s on the ice that he isn’t building a score.”
From Brian Boitano, 1988 Olympic champion: “His composure. His ease of jumping. His humility. They are all equal things I admire about him.”
From Hayes Jenkins, 1956 Olympian champion: “Nathan continues to mature artistically. His presentation has become more refined as he continues. I know he has a background in ballet, and he is managing to show that side of himself within the confines of the IJS system.”
Chen reflected last week on how difficult it is to include more artistry in programs packed with quadruple jumps.
“I tried to expand time in the choreo sequence of the long program, sneaking a couple seconds here and there throughout the (rest of) the program,” Chen said. “But it is so technically loaded right now that it is hard for me to steal some time before a certain element just because I need a certain amount of time to prep for a salchow or a certain amount of time to prep for a toe (loop) or whatnot.”
Chen likely will attempt four quads in the long program at this national championships, but don’t expect one to be the quad loop he dragged out of mothballs for the team competition that followed Skate America. He had last included the jump in competition at the 2017 Japan Open.
“I would love to do it, but the success (rate) has been quite low recently in practice, so that is sort of a game-time decision,” Chen said. “If I am able to get my success rate up a little bit, then I think that I will have a higher chance of putting it in. If it is going the way it is now, probably not.”
Like all the other top skaters in a season that has lurched along while looking for ways to mitigate the COVID-19 risk – no fans at the U.S. Championships, as was the case at Skate America; athletes and coaches in a Las Vegas hotel/rink bubble – Chen is aware that the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are inexorably creeping closer.
“That is in the back of everyone’s mind,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, the world championships in the pre-Olympic season would be the most significant event before the Winter Games. The 2021 championships in late March in Stockholm still are scheduled to take place. The 2020 worlds in Montreal were cancelled.
“If they have it, I would love to be there.” Chen said of worlds. “I am just a little concerned about coronavirus and the safety of the athletes… as long as everyone is safe, and it is a responsibly done event, by all means, I would love to be there.”
Part of his desire to be at worlds is the chance to compete again with two-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Each credits the other’s success for having pushed him to greater heights. They have not met since the 2019 Grand Prix Final.
“Competing with him is such a unique feeling and experience, and I really love it and always look forward to it,” Chen said of Hanyu.
Chen was among those duly impressed by how well Hanyu skated at the Japanese Championships in late December. It was Hanyu’s first competition since February.
“I know he has been training by himself, and training in isolation is pretty tough, so I give him a lot of credit for still being able to stay on top of his game,” said Chen, who has beaten the redoubtable Hanyu in their two most recent meetings, both in the 2019-20 season.
They have not only an exciting skating rivalry but also a commitment to higher education in common. In September, Hanyu completed his degree in human information science at Waseda University, using motion capture to convert movement on the ice into digital data.
The two rulers of the sport also are kings of the nerds.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.