Nathan Chen’s defining moment is ahead in Beijing

The 15-minute ride Nathan Chen takes daily from the Olympic Village to the Beijing Games’ figure skating venue traces routes that for centuries carried emperors and later Olympic gods to and from palaces and shrines adorned with gold.

He passes the two Olympic icons, the National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, and the Ice Cube, the Beijing National Aquatic Center, on the way out of the Olympic Park. Past the south gate of the Goddess Beiding Temple, built by the mother of an emperor in the 1400s as an expression of gratitude to Heaven for blessing her with a prince.

The drive finally turns onto Xiwai Avenue past the Beijing Zoo, reminding Chen, figure skating’s would-be king, the youngest child of a daughter of Beijing, of his first visit to his mother’s hometown.

“I was 10,” Chen said. “I remember going to the Beijing Zoo. I have great memories of that trip”

Wednesday morning (Tuesday evening in the U.S.) the route will deliver Chen, now 22, to the Capital Indoor Stadium next door to the zoo’s grounds for the Olympic Games men’s short program and a moment the sport and his millions of fans have been waiting four years for, and for his family, a moment decades in the making.

The trip from Olympic Village to the arena belies the longer journey that has brought the Chen family full circle back to the city his parents left in the late 1980s, their son returning as the biggest star in the Winter Games’ marquee sport.

“I just remember hearing stories from my mom about growing up in Beijing and being like, ‘Wow, you know, I’m here,’” Chen said.

It is an odyssey shaped by parents born in one of China’s darkest periods who went on to build new lives in the American West; the path of a prodigy launched on Salt Lake City rinks built for the 2002 Olympic Games, steeled in the ice palaces of Southern California, carried to unprecedented heights and heartbreak and embarrassment at the 2018 Games in South Korea and now finally to a place that could coronate him as the sport’s greatest of all time.

“I think everyone is getting excited because we’ve been waiting for this moment for him,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic women’s gold medalist, now an analyst for NBC. “He’s been on this journey since we first saw him as this 12-year-old prodigy, and everything has been falling into place. He’s been so incredibly dominant, winning practically every event since the last Olympics. Now the time has come, and the one title that he needs to add to his collection is Olympic champion.”

An accurate comparison to the impact Chen, winner of the last three World titles, has had on his sport is not found in figure skating’s history but in track and field’s transformative figures, Usain Bolt, Bob Beamon and Dick Fosbury.

Changing figure skating

Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, has pushed the edge of the envelope like no other, giving flight to a sport that has been forced to embrace a new level of athleticism in order to try to keep up with him. He was the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate, and the first to record eight quads in a single competition. Chen holds the world scoring records for total program (335.30 points) and free skate (224.92) and owns five of the six highest total program scores of all time. He won a sixth consecutive U.S. title last month, a feat last accomplished by two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, 71 years ago.

“He’s remarkable,” said Jason Brown, Chen’s U.S. teammate. “He’s truly a once-in-a-generation athlete.”

But for all his brilliance he has been unable to fully skate away or soar above the shadow of a devastating fifth place finish at the 2018 Olympic Games and a debacle of a short program. Indeed perhaps the biggest storyline of the Beijing Games — aside from the International Olympic Committee’s unwillingness to address the host nation’s human rights record — is whether Chen will leave China with a gold medal or hounded by further Olympic disappointment.

“You learn the most from your mistakes and I certainly learned a lot from that competition,” Chen said referring to the 2018 Olympic Games. “And I don’t think I’d be able to be here where I am now without having that experience and so I think rather than that being a demon, that was a very helpful learning experience.”

His parents, Zhidong Chen and Hetty Wang, were born around the time of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s campaign to transform China from an agrarian economy to a Communist society that led to a famine that left an estimated 15 to 55 million dead.

“My mom is from Beijing and I still have a lot of family in Beijing,” Nathan Chen said. “Just having that family connection is definitely really meaningful to me as well.”

Zhidong Chen and Wang immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 on his student visa and little else. They knew no one in the U.S. and Wang did not speak any English, their son said. They moved first to Carbondale, Illinois, before settling in Salt Lake City where Chen, who earned a medical degree in China, received a doctorate in pharmacy. He went on to own a small biotech company. Wang has worked as a medical interpreter.

Nathan Chen, the youngest of the couple’s five children, first took the ice at age 3 in his older sister’s skates in hopes of playing hockey with his brothers Tony and Colin.

“I wanted to be a goalie,” Chen said.

He soon, however, turned his focus to skating.

“I think that also growing up in Salt Lake and having the Olympics to have that sort of motivator allowed me to recognize how cool it is to be an athlete and what the Olympics are like,” Chen said. “I don’t necessarily feel like me individually is creating that, but I think that having the idea of the Olympics dream, the next generation of athletes will be able to watch this next Olympics and be like, ‘Wow, that was so cool,’ and then be like, ‘Hey, maybe I want to try something in the ice,’ or stepping on the slopes or whatever it might be. Just using that as inspiration, because that’s definitely what drove me to want to be an athlete.”

By 2010, Chen then just 10, was already billed as the future of American figure skating. Described by former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton as a “towering 4-(feet)-5,” Chen became the youngest novice champion in U.S. history. Hamilton was already comparing Chen’s jumping ability to another Olympic champion, Brian Boitano.

“He’s only a year and a half older than me but I looked up to him,” said Vincent Zhou, Chen’s 2018 and 2022 U.S. Olympic teammate.

Passing the test

Chen relocated to Southern California in December 2011 to train with Rafael Arutyunyan but only after passing an interview with the coach, who previously worked with five-time World champion Michelle Kwan, World champion Mao Asada of Japan and Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen.

Arutyunyan asked Chen, then 12, what he wanted to do with his skating.

“I want to be Olympic champion,” Chen said.

“He passed the test,” Arutyunyan said later.

Two years earlier Chen was interviewed by NBC’s Andrea Joyce after performing at an exhibition gala alongside new Olympic team members at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

“Which Olympics are we going to see you in?” Joyce asked.

“2018,” Chen said.

By the time 18-year-old Chen arrived at the Olympic Games in South Korea, he had already revolutionized figure skating. Chen’s jumping ability allowed him to take advantage like no other of a scoring system implemented by the sport’s governing body in the wake of the Salt Lake City Olympic judging scandal.

Chen’s world record total program score (335.30) is nearly 33 points higher than the best mark for the second highest scoring skater in history — Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time defending Olympic champion. Chen owns the top three highest free skate scores of all time, six of the top nine. A measure of Chen’s influence on the sport is evident in Hanyu’s admission that he is considering attempting a quad Axel in Beijing, a jump no one has successfully landed in competition.

“Nathan’s totally changed (the sport),” said Adam Rippon, a 2018 Olympian who trained with Chen under Arutyunyan. “I think right now the judging is sort of at a pivotal point where right now the technical is outweighing the artistic side. But I think that has in part to do with what Nathan’s done and it’s incredible. He’s pushed the technical, what’s considered the best in the world technically.”

But in South Korea, Air Chen was slow to lift off. He was shaky in the team competition, finishing fourth in the men’s short program portion of the event, although he did land the first quad flip in Olympic history. Despite the performance, Chen and Team USA still picked up a bronze medal.

Any hopes of an individual medal were buried by a disastrous short program in the men’s singles competition. Chen staggered and stumbled through a routine to the music of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” falling on a triple axel. His score of 80.61 was nearly 24 points off his season’s best and left him in 17th place.

Nathan Chen of the United States falls while performing in the men’s short program figure skating in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

“No one wants to skate like that on Olympic ice,” Chen said.

He would rebound in the free skate, becoming the first person in Olympic history to attempt six quads and to land five cleanly. His free skate score of 215.08 was also the highest in Olympic history. But it wasn’t enough. Chen finished fifth overall.

A month later, Chen landed six quads in the free skate to win his first World title, becoming the youngest World champion in 17 years. He would go on to defend the World title in 2019 and 2021. The 2020 Worlds were canceled because of the pandemic.

College at Yale

Chen would also enroll at Yale, majoring in statistics and data science. He took a leave of absence this academic year to train for the Olympics. At Yale he has found both perspective and breathing room, relishing in the relative anonymity he has on campus.

“I think truthfully they don’t really know too much about what I do outside of school,” Chen said of his classmates.

“The last four years have given me a lot of opportunities to learn more about what’s going on in the world,” he continued. “I’ve spent my entire life since I was 3 years old basically in an ice rink. But fortunately, I was also able to go to college starting in 2018 and that gave me a little more exposure of what the real world is like.

“It’s great to be able to at least figure out yourself and where you belong and how you can create whatever positive influence you can.”

For the most part, Chen has tried to sidestep questions about China’s human rights abuses, perhaps fearful of the ramifications any statements would have on his family still living in Beijing.

“I think that for a greater change to occur, there must be power that is beyond the Olympics,” he said. “It has to be change at a remarkable scale. However, the fact that people are talking about it is a step in the right direction.”

In Beijing, Chen has continued his practice of wearing a mask even while training and has tried to avoid crowds within the Olympic Village, but he also seems more at ease at these Games than he did four years ago.

“As soon as you touch down you see the Olympic rings (and think), ‘Oh, my, God, I’m here,’” he said.

It helps that training partners like Mariah Bell, the U.S. women’s champion, pairs competitors Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, and Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic, are in Beijing and in the village with him.

“My friends have really helped me stay grounded the past four years and now to have them with me in person is really different,” he said.

There are other comforts of home in the village. “The food (Wang) cooks at home is basically the same food in the dining hall,” he said. “So that’s really nice to have that.” He’s also brought a basketball, football and his electric guitar in hopes of jamming with ice dancer Evan Bates.

“It’s been four years and I’ve had a lot of new experiences,” Chen said. “I think it just gives you a fresh perspective or recognizing the course of my skating career. I only have a limited amount of time on the ice and competition and especially at the Olympics. If I can’t enjoy it, then what’s the point of doing it?”

His warm-up before the team competition’s men’s short program last week included playing catch with a football. Chen then went out and registered a 111.71 score, the second highest short program score in history and an Olympic record.

“Nathan killed it,” Knierim said.

“It feels great to have a short program that I actually skated well in as an Olympic experience,” Chen cracked.

But he knows the true Olympic test, what he will ultimately be remembered for, is the men’s competition, which wraps up with the free skate Friday morning (Thursday night in the U.S.).

Chen has spent the past four years doing his best to deflect questions about the 2018 debacle.

“Four years ago is a long time ago,” he said in a typical response. “I have a really bad memory, good or bad.”

Enjoying the Games

But recently he was pushed on the topic and after initially offering resistance to revisiting those Games.

“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “I was at the Olympics, I tried my best and it didn’t go the way that I wanted to, so I have another chance here to try, but whatever happens, happens. I think …”

Chen paused for a moment and then in a rare moment of letting his guard down, surrendered to the memory.

“OK, if you’re talking about regret,” he continued, “I think the fact that I wasn’t able to enjoy it. I was a kid not really knowing what the Olympics was and just didn’t really, didn’t really have fun with it. And I look back on it and I don’t really have the fondest memories.

“Coming here regardless of how I skate, I want to be able to look and go, ‘That was a really cool experience.’”

So this week he will follow the now familiar route out of the village, through so much history, both ancient and modern, toward his own destiny; past the Bird’s Nest and Ice Cube, the great theaters of Bolt and Michael Phelps’ Olympic triumphs, past the golden shrines, to center stage of these Games, the Olympic rings once again beneath his feet on ice frozen over grounds once home to imperial mansions, the short program and free skate before him, six minutes that will forever define him.

Will Chen once again fail to display his full gifts to the sport’s biggest stage?

Or will he, strengthened by previous Olympic fire, live up to the ancient Chinese proverb:

Pure gold does not fear the flame.

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