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Nathan Chen: US figure skater’s balancing act of Yale student and Olympic favorite


So began a relentless pursuit of victories an a laser focus that culminated in the realization of his own forecast in PyeongChang.

Yet as he prepares for his second Olympic outing in Beijing this month, Chen has discovered that the key to glory on the rink may — paradoxically — lie away from it.

Despite the fulfillment of a dream in 2018, an 18-year-old Chen ultimately left South Korea disappointed following a 5th-place finish in the individual event. He won a bronze in the team event but was critical of his own contribution.

In the four years since, Chen has gone from strength to strength, racking up three straight world championships and sealing a 6th consecutive US title to arrive in Beijing as a favorite.

It’s been a run of form made all the more impressive by the simultaneous juggling of a statistics and data science degree at Yale, but this very balancing act could help guide the 22-year-old to an as yet elusive Olympic gold.

“Before, I really took it for granted and was like, ‘Hey, I’m just here to compete and here to win and that’s all I want to focus on,'” Chen told CNN Sport’s Coy Wire in January.

“A lot of being able to perform well is resulted upon being able to spend time off the rink and recovering, giving yourself the time to be a human and friend and fill the role that’s not an athlete all the time.

“Being able to spend time with my friends, my family, pick up hobbies, do things that are unrelated to skating — just sort of rest myself physically and mentally — has been really useful.”

And Chen made the perfect start to competition at the 2022 Games, with an almost flawless routine to open his account at the Olympics.

He landed two quads and a triple Axel in his impressive first display, and when asked about the clean quads, Chen said they are often a hot-or-cold maneuver.

“If I wake up on the right side of the bed, they are effortless, and if not, they are not so effortless. I try my best, sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad. As with anything, you learn any time you make a mistake, and you try to make it better the next time.”

Chen competes in the men's single skating short program during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Back to school

For most at school, sport is a convenient escape from studies. Yet Chen, having taken a break from Yale to focus on Olympic preparations, is already looking forward to being back in the library in August.

“It was awesome, my time at Yale,” Chen said.

“It was really great to be able to have the opportunity to realize sport is really important and that’s why we’re doing all this, but also there’s the complete other side of life that is available to athletes.

“You can still succeed in sports, even if you aren’t 24/7 thinking about sports. I think just being able to have that realization was really useful and I’m really looking forward to going back to school after these Games.”

Life on campus has also expanded his worldview, with Chen becoming more outspoken on topics like voting rights and racial inequality since his last Olympics.

In July 2020, he shared on Instagram his appreciation for Ibram Kendi’s book, “How to be an Antiracist,” part of an ongoing effort to learn about and engage with social issues.
“The last four years have given me a lot of opportunities to learn more about what’s going on in the world. I’ve spent my entire life since I was three years old basically in an ice rink,” he said at the USOPC media summit in October 2021.

“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.”

Chen skates in the men's Short Program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena on January 08, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Roots

Though don’t mistake his passion for school for a lack of competitive drive. Having grown up in Salt Lake City — host of the 2002 Games — Olympic glory will mark the culmination of a life’s ambition.

This year’s Games also hold an added personal element — Chen’s parents were born in China before moving to the US around 30 years ago, and as a result, a Beijing Games just means that much more.

“It certainly means a lot to us knowing that’s where my parents came from,” Chen told Wire.

“Having the opportunity to be back in their home country and my mom’s hometown competing at the Olympics — I still have family in China too — it’s gonna be really special to have that.”

Another personal drive stems from Chen’s desire to banish the demons of his “rough” performance in PyeongChang.

A fifth-placed individual finish and a bronze team medal would spell a fantastic Olympic debut for most, but Chen — even with his new perspective on competition — still maintains a fierce desire to be the best.

“I’m so thankful to my team for getting me that bronze last time,” Chen said.

“I definitely didn’t really pull my weight, so to be able to win my own individual medal after that would just mean the world to me.

“That’s why I’ve been training so much over my life. That’s why I come to the rink every single day and do what I need to do, so that I can have these opportunities to try my best.”

Idol

Chen’s scintillating form over the last four years has done little to quell the sky-high expectations that he carried as an 18-year-old into PyeongChang.

It is a testament to these performances that Chen arrives in Beijing as a favorite despite the presence of two-time Olympic defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

The Japanese icon may well be the biggest obstacle between Chen and his ultimate dream, yet for Chen, to compete against his “idol” is nothing but a privilege.

Hanyu performs during the Figure Skating Gala Exhibition at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 25, 2018 in South Korea.

“He’s done so much for the sport, both with himself and then all the things that he’s done outside of the rink — I think he’s just really changed the sport for the better,” Chen said.

“Just to be able to have opportunities to compete against him, to be on the same ice as him, is an honor in itself.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of him, so to be able to see an idol of yours on the rink as you’re competing is just pretty special.

“He’s consistently pushing the sport forward, so it’s really special to have competitors like that.”

Reuters contributed to this reporting.



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