Nathan Chen is already a household name.
Leading up to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the figure skater’s exemplary record had cemented Chen as a marquee attraction. The 18-year-old had recently landed an unprecedented five different quadruple jumps in a single competition; became the youngest men's national champion in over 50 years when he claimed gold at the 2017 U.S. Championships; and was hot off two Grand Prix victories and a men’s singles gold at the 2017 Grand Prix Final in December. Chen seemed primed to earn the United States’ first Olympic gold in men’s singles since Evan Lysacek at Vancouver 2010, and perhaps even set a world record along the way.
That didn’t happen. On February 16th, 2018, the Utah native fell against the ice and into 17th place during his men’s singles short program performance at the PyeongChang Olympics. But he returned to the Gangneung Ice Arena the following day for his free skate routine and scored an Olympic record-worthy 215.08 points – elevating him to fifth place overall. Though the singles competition didn’t go his way, Chen did help the U.S. earn a bronze medal in the team event.
That March, Chen earned gold at the World Figure Skating Championships. Over the next three and a half years, he became the only skater to land eight quadruple jumps in competition; break world records for free skate (224.92) and combined total (335.30); and won 13 senior-level events, picking up three World Championship titles. He remained undefeated until he finished third at Skate America this October.
“It was inevitably going to end, right, at some point in time,” Chen said of his winning streak after his unexpected loss. “The only thing I can do is move forward. That’s where my mind’s at.”
A week later, Chen topped the podium again at the Skate Canada Grand Prix competition with a 48-point margin over silver medalist (and compatriot) Jason Brown.
All of this to say: Once again, Nathan Chen heads towards the Olympics as the gold medal favorite.
Chen was born in Salt Lake City, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics, on May 5, 1999. In a November 2017 interview with NBCOlympics.com, Chen described his family as “very close”. He has two older brothers and two older sisters, and credits his mother in particular with influencing his skating career: “She spent most of her free time driving me around, spending time on the ice, and watching me skate.” Both his mother and father were raised in China but moved to the U.S. in their 20s.
As a kid, Chen performed gymnastics and played hockey. His earliest Olympic memories involve seeing legends like Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno race. “Almost every Olympian is inspiring,” Chen said. “I remember watching figure skating on TV during the 2002 Olympics, and I remember going to the rink and pretending to be in the Olympics. I’ve always wanted to be in the Olympics but I always made sure to not think too far ahead and take things one step at a time.”
Chen has a rigid training schedule and reviews data regularly; he spends four to five hours a day training. Chen emphasized the difficulty behind fine-tuning technique and the consistency required. “I need to be very focused and motivated to achieve the goals I set out to do each day.” To keep in shape, the figure skater bikes outdoors, lifts weights and endures “grueling” cardio sessions. He snacks throughout the day, eating a lot of yogurt and fruit.
During his career, Chen has suffered some serious injuries. His most significant occurred the final day of U.S. 2016 Championships, just after he had become the first male single's skater to land four quadruple jumps in a long program. Already back on the ice for an exhibition, Chen sustained an avulsion injury to his left hip. "[It] required immediate surgery and took me off the ice for around five months," he said, explaining how he missed the World Championships that year. "It was mentally difficult ... I had a great support team behind me that helped me every step of the way back onto the ice and, seemingly in no time, I was back to full training."
Preparing for 2022
Outside of his chosen sport, Chen tries to manage a relatively normal life. Though he’s currently taken a leave of absence to focus on the Games, the figure skater studies statistics and data science at Yale University. He enjoys traveling to warmer countries like Spain and Thailand, where he can relax on the beach and surf. Chen also really likes sleep, and tries to get 10 hours each night.
Still, it’s important to remember Chen has not yet qualified for the Olympics. He must excel at the final national event, the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Though making the Olympic team seems inevitable, Chen will officially know whether he qualifies when a committee announces the roster no later than Monday, January 10th.