Things have been looking down for quite some time, but just maybe there is hope now for a bump of sorts. A combination of events over the next few months may produce the perfect ice storm, lifting the sport to a more respectable perch. A potential Olympic hero is waiting in the wings; and even before that, there is a Tonya Harding movie to whet your appetite.
The Winter Games are merely three months away, and the Americans may have the most exciting of all skaters headed for PyeongChang, South Korea, That would be 18-year-old Nathan Chen, a whirligig from Salt Lake City who is capable of the most astounding acrobatic feats. Chen is the only figure skater who has a full arsenal of five different quadruple jumps, and he has proven capable of showcasing all of them in a single performance. His coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, has even suggested the possibility of introducing seven quads in the long program, a gigantic leap of faith.
Chen is still ranked only No. 4 in the world by Icenetwork.com, and will be a slight underdog in South Korea, which makes this even more fun. But he recently defeated the Olympic favorite, Yuzura Hanyu, of Japan, at a Grand Prix event in Moscow. Chen and Hanyu are both magnificent daredevils.
Nathan Chen's skating career could have come to a very early end.
When Chen was 3 years old, he went to the rink with his siblings; Chen is the youngest of five. When the public session concluded, he refused to leave the ice. It wasn't until the Zamboni was about to clean the rink that Chen's mom carried him out — kicking and screaming, she says.
"I don't remember too much of that," Chen says with a laugh. "I was kind of young."
Fortunately, Chen returned. He kept coming back to the point that he soon developed into one of America's best young figure skaters. Now, at 18, he's a U.S. champion and almost certainly one of this nation's best shots for gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics — something Chen says he has a "pretty high chance of" as long as he sticks to his plan and remains healthy.
He's also become a ground breaker by loading his program with quadruple jumps. Ever since the four-revolution jumps became a staple of the sport in the 1990s, Americans have lagged behind. No longer, because Chen pretty much is the king of quads, having once done an unprecedented five in a free skate.
"That's HARD," says two-time Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, rolling his eyes at the thought. "When I would do quad-triple-double, I would lose power for much of the program. Five quads?"
Chen smiles when asked if his recent achievements — at the Rostelecom Cup he reeled off four quads, including a spectacular opening quad lutz-triple toe combination and a quad-double toe-double cascade in the second half of the free skate in beating 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu — have pressurized things heading toward South Korea.
"I have my own life to live," he says "and to let that get to me would be defeating the purpose. I have confidence in how I've trained and prepared myself. I've dreamed about the Olympics for a long time and it would be kind of silly and a waste to freak myself out."
Instead, Chen just might freak out the competition with his technical skills. Not that jumping alone is enough to win international titles, and Chen has worked hard on his presentation.
Indeed, he's never been purely a jumper and having taken ballet — his sisters were in classes — has helped with his choreography. This season, Chen, coach Rafael Arutunian, choreographers Lori Nichol (free skate) and Shae-Lynn Bourne (short program) have put together two routines that not only fit his style, but play off the energy and difficulty of what Chen is doing on the ice.
Nathan Chen will make his Olympics debut in PyeongChang in February as a part of Team USA’s figure skating squad. Chen has emerged as one of the world’s best, taking home first place in five of his nine single’s competitions since moving up to the senior circuit, including two wins in his two events to start this season.
Chen is looking to get Team USA back on the medal podium after no American men reached the podium in Sochi in 2014, and will be looking to match Evan Lysacek’s 2010 gold medal performance. As he prepares for his Olympics debut, Chen got a special surprise this week when one of the stars from the 2016 Olympics in Rio, gymnast Simone Biles, dropped by the rink to meet him and welcome him to Team Kellogg’s, while also offering some advice as he enters his first Olympics, just as she did two years ago.
Biles and Chen spoke with UPROXX Sports about the pressures of the Olympics, advice Biles has for Chen, and how to handle the unique challenges of being in a sport where judges determine the outcome.
What was your first reaction in getting to meet Simone?
Chen: Honestly like, you know, I was kind of lost for words. She’s definitely someone I’ve looked up to for a while. She’s literally a legend in the sport, so to be able to meet her and skate with her, is just unbelievable.
What are some of the attributes that she brings that you look to kind of exhibit in your own performances on the ice?
Chen: Yeah. I mean, I can’t even imagine the type of pressure that she’s under going into the Games, even just the whole season in general. And to be able to, you know, just block all that out, perform like she did, and just blow everyone away is what I definitely want to bring to the season. You know, there’s a lot to learn from her. And I think that it’s awesome to have people that set these guidelines and also just you know, show that it’s possible to do what she did. It’s just very inspiring.
For you, what are your expectations for the Olympics and as we get closer to the Games, how are you handling the excitement and any nerves you’re feeling?
Chen: I’m very excited for the season. I started off the season well, especially, you know, being able to have a win in Russia and also a win in Salt Lake. To be able to start the season like that is awesome. I have a pretty big competition coming up in November. And so, you know, just preparing myself as best as possible for that. Just take it day by day and not maybe look so much at the Games. Just focus on all the little small goals I have leading up to the game.
Simone, turn over to you for a second. What is that first Olympics experience like and what’s kind of some advice on how to take that in, while also not letting it distract from the preparation for the competition?
Biles: Yes. I feel like your first Olympic experience is kind of a whirlwind, but it’s so exciting cause you know all your hard work is paying off and you did everything you could to get there. So I would say to really embrace the moment and to have fun, because I feel like, especially for him, this won’t be his only Olympics.
When you’re looking at the competition itself, and you’re at that stage. You’ve participated in World Championships and big events before, but what’s the difference of the Olympic stage and is there added pressure?
Biles: Besides, it’s like the the height of your career. I feel like nothing changes but the name of the event. So, try not to think of it that way. It’s like any other competition.
I’ll ask this one to both of you. In both of your sports, there’s a subjectivity to how the performances are judged and scored that isn’t necessarily there in a lot of other sports. So, how do you kind of handle those challenges and maybe when you get a score that you thought should’ve been better, how do you move forward and kind of shrug those things off?
Biles: I feel like, we also have a team event, so we have to do it for our team, and then we do it as individuals. But once you get a score that you might not like, I feel like you can’t take it to heart because you have other events to come. So you really have to focus on what you can do rather than what the judges give you.