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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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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