Nathan Chen’s Olympic prep includes talks with last U.S. man to win figure skating gold

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Part of Nathan Chen‘s prep for another Winter Games as a favorite included spending time with the last American figure skater to win an Olympic singles gold medal.

Evan Lysacek, who previously skated on the same ice as Chen from 2011-13, showed up one day over the last year to skate recreationally at Chen’s home rink in Irvine, California. Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist, came back, again and again.

“The conversations were pretty brief,” Chen said, “but just sharing some of the worries or things that I’ve dealt with over the past few years, the similar things that he’s dealt with. Just kind of framing perspectives around the Olympics.”

Chen headlines this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but the pressure at this event is on the skaters chasing him. He’s heavily favored to win a sixth consecutive national title, and a lock for the three-man roster chosen by committee for Beijing.

What’s unclear is how Chen will fare in February in his return to the Olympics. As a marketed star in 2018, he had a disastrous short program, then a brilliant free skate with six quadruple jumps to climb just shy of the medals, finishing fifth overall. Now, he goes into the Games as the reigning world champion.

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Lysacek’s story had some of the same narrative. He was 10th in the short program in his Olympic debut in 2006, felled by a stomach flu. He rallied two days later, hit all of his jumps and moved up to fourth. Unlike Chen, Lysacek was not a gold-medal favorite in his first Olympics, but it burned to miss the podium.

“I really can only blame myself because I put the expectation on myself,” said Lysacek, now married and working in residential real estate. “Nathan had expectations from external forces, from sponsors, from media, from fans. They all sort of felt that he was going to be the one. And that’s a lot of pressure for the first time out.”

Lysacek joked that it’s scary to think that he’s seen Chen since he was a boy. But it’s true.

Lysacek and Chen were on the ice together on Jan. 24, 2010, at a gala exhibition sending off the U.S. team to the Vancouver Games.

Lysacek was mere weeks away from his Olympic title. Chen, nearly two feet shorter, was the 10-year-old who won the novice division. After his gala skate, Chen predicted in a national TV interview that he would make the 2018 Olympic team.

In 2011, Chen moved from Salt Lake City to Southern California to train under coach Rafael Arutunian. It just so happened that Lysacek, with coach Frank Carroll, trained at the same rink as Arutunian’s group.

Lysacek never made it back to competition, withdrawing from 2014 Olympic consideration due to injuries. Chen debuted at senior nationals in 2015, placing eighth at age 15.

Lysacek continued to do some skating exhibition shows, but went about a year off skates until he got tired of working out alone during the pandemic. His wife pushed him to skate again — “because she wanted to see tricks,” he said — and he looked for a rink.

The only open one in Southern California was Great Park Ice in Irvine. Lysacek began skating “in lower-level sessions,” then at the same time as pairs’ skaters. Then he started skating with Chen.

“And just, you know, felt humiliated,” he joked. “So ridiculous even being out there with a skater that was so good, trying to just play around and remember, like, any little thing that I could.”

Lysacek estimated that he skated a few days a week for two months. During that time, Chen was strategizing for the Olympic season.

“To me, strategy is everything. But because he was planning a strategy, I just said, ‘Hey, look, I think a clean skate will win,'” said Lysacek, who won his 2010 Olympic title without a quadruple jump but with higher artistic scores than Russian Yevgeny Plushenko, plus more points for doing jumps late in his free skate when skaters usually tire. “There’s always kind of that one [program] that’s perfect, and the rest are not, and the one that’s perfect will win. And that’s kind of what I shared with Nathan. It doesn’t matter if it’s six quads, five quads, four quads or three.”

Lysacek, who posed for a 2010 Olympic profile shoot sitting on a bench in front of the word “Determination,” saw similarities between his relentless preparation and that of Chen.

“There’s not one more rep, one more hour training that Nathan could do,” he said. “And I think that will give him a lot of strength in the Olympics. It certainly was, for me, the competition where I felt a lot of pressure. I always looked at the group [of other skaters]. And I said, these guys are better than me for sure. They’re better skaters, but they haven’t worked as hard. And that gave me some peace of mind.”

Chen hasn’t dwelled on his first Olympic experience the way that Lysacek did. At least not openly.

“For four years, every day, I thought of falling [in 2006],” Lysacek said.

Chen does not regret 2018.

“It’s something that I accept as something that happened, and from there I can move on personally,” he said.

If Chen does get the gold medal — that he said will not define him — he will not only share a similar climb to Lysacek, but also other American figure skating greats. In 1980, Scott Hamilton finished fifth at his first Olympics. In 1984, Brian Boitano finished fifth at his first Olympics. Each won gold in his second Games.

On Feb. 16, 2018, Chen finished fifth in his Olympic debut. Boitano texted Hamilton.

“He got the good luck fifth place in his first Olympics!!” wrote Boitano, whose goal at his first Olympics was fifth place.

“I hope Nathan’s fifth gives him what it gave us,” replied Hamilton, who hoped to get top eight in his first Olympics.

All six American men to win the world championship the year before the Olympics went on to take Olympic gold, starting with Dick Button in 1951. Chen can make it seven.

“Nathan’s different,” Lysacek said, contrasting Chen from himself. “I think Nathan knows he actually is the best. He’s been the best for many years. He’s the best on any given day. And it’s just about delivering that.”

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