Nathan Chen first hit the figure skating radar when, as a shy 10-year-old, he captured the 2010 U.S. novice men’s title. Since then, the prodigious athlete has captured three more, including a second novice title and two junior crowns. Injuries hampered his efforts last year. Chen was assigned to one Junior Grand Prix event late in the season, where he placed second.
A heel injury interfered with his preparations for the 2015 U.S. Championships, and, when he arrived in North Carolina, he was nursing a sore back, as well. “I would say that I was satisfied with my performances, given the circumstances, but I was not happy with my placement,” Chen said of his eighth-place finish. “If I had been healthy, I think that I could have done much better. I didn’t have the opportunity to train as I would have liked for my debut at the senior level. During the competition, I was taking medication for pain that allowed me to compete.”
Chen was sent to the World Junior Championships, where he finished fourth, after which he headed home to nurse his injuries — the second time in three years that he had faced the same scenario. “U.S. Figure Skating contacted me and said they thought that it would be a good idea to figure out why I was getting injured so frequently,” he said. “They sent me to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, where pretty much everything that I do was examined.”
The first order of business was to evaluate Chen’s injuries and to see whether there was a pattern that caused them. “We learned that I had a pelvic imbalance and that one leg was a little bit longer than the other,” he explained. “We also learned that my arch was really collapsed, which was a pretty big issue. So I did a lot of physical therapy to correct the issues and strengthen my body. It was a lot of work, but I’m feeling better.”
Chen also started working with a team of professionals including physical therapists, personal trainers and nutritionists. “To that point, I never had an off-ice training regimen,” he explained. “I realize now how important it is. I learned how everything works together to make me a better, healthier athlete. I never had the opportunity to work on these things before, but I have already started to notice a difference. Things are easier now than they were before. Everything is going well, and I am applying so much of what I learned to my training.”
A month later Chen headed back to his home in California. “We had a meeting with everyone from the OTC and my team,” Chen recalled. “They shared what they had learned and what I needed to do to in order to become a more complete athlete. But I knew that I would go back to my natural habits in competition. Everything is so new to me that I know that I am not going to be perfect. I need time to transition what I have learned into a habit.”
This season, Chen’s team decided that he should return to the Junior Grand Prix circuit, rather than make the leap into the senior ranks. “I knew that I did not have enough points to be guaranteed two senior Grand Prix events, so it was decided that I would stay in juniors,” he explained. “I’ve been inconsistent on the Junior Grand Prix, so this will hopefully set me up well for a strong debut as a senior.”
In advance of his first Grand Prix event, Chen returned to the OTC to build on what he had learned in the summer, before making his season debut just down the road at the World Arena in Colorado Springs. Chen won the event by nearly 30 points, landing two quadruple toe loops, one in combination, in the free skate. “It was a strong event for me,” he said. “I didn’t have to travel very far, and I was there in advance of the event to get used to the altitude. I know that it is a difficult adjustment, so I can imagine how hard it was for all of the great competitors.”
Though he mined gold at his second event in Longroño, Spain, he was not perfect, placing second in the free skate. “I was slightly off axis going into the Axel,” he said of his fall on the element. “It wasn’t supposed to happen, but I was able to forget about it and complete the rest of the program without issue.”
Chen clinched a berth at the Junior Grand Prix Final for the second time in his career and was looking to improve on his third-place finish at his last appearance. “Based on my ranking, I think this is possible, so I will just try to do my best,” he said. “The guys I am competing against are or will very soon be at the senior level, so this competition will hopefully also be a push for me into the senior level. It will be interesting to watch the senior men compete.”
He won both segments of the event in Barcelona and claimed his first Junior Grand Prix Final title in a runaway victory.
As he heads into the 2016 U.S. Championships this week Chen finds himself in very different position to a year ago. No longer hoping for a top five result, he will be in the hunt for a podium finish in St. Paul. “I always focus on my own skating, but I if I have to look ahead, I think that I can compete for a spot on the podium,” Chen said. “I would like to go to the World Championships so that I can see what it is like to compete at that level. Of course, U.S. Figure Skating will make the final decision, but if I am in a position where I could be named to both the World and the Junior World teams, I would like to do that. I would like a chance to win the World Junior title. It would be a nice way to close out my junior career.”
Chen is completing his high school studies online through the Capistrano Connections Academy. He is studying English, AP biology, economics and history and plans to graduate next spring. “I definitely won’t be thinking about college until after this Olympic cycle is over,” he said. “I want to give it my all to try to make the 2018 team. After that, I would like to go to university.”
Like most 16-year-olds, Chen is anxious to start driving, but has not yet had time to learn. In his spare time he likes to play guitar, a hobby that he picked up a couple of years ago. “I really enjoy it,” Chen said. “If I am not training or doing schoolwork, I like to play my guitar.
NATHAN CHEN MAKES HISTORY