DETROIT — This was going to be a year of transition for reigning world champion and Olympic team bronze medalist Nathan Chen. At 19, he was heading across the country to college. Southern California was behind him. Yale beckoned.
This was going to be a grand experiment: he was trying to be a full-time college student and a full-time figure skater. He would train alone – all alone – without his coach and without his training partners, hour after hour, day after day, on the ice at Yale’s Ingalls Rink. If he ran into trouble, he could pull out his phone and FaceTime with his coach, Rafael Arutunian. Other than that, Chen was on his own.
It’s only the beginning of Chen’s second semester of his freshman year, but it’s clear the old college try has so far been a stunning success.
Chen stormed to his third consecutive U.S. men’s national figure skating title Sunday evening with a flawless, four-quad long program, including perhaps his most picture-perfect, ceiling-scrapping, quadruple jump ever, the quad lutz right out of the gate.
Chen gobbled up points around the ice with nearly every move he made, soaring to a total of 342.22, a whopping 58.21 points ahead of the second-place finisher, 18-year-old Vincent Zhou (284.01), Chen’s 2018 Olympic teammate. Lyrical 24-year-old veteran Jason Brown was third — way, way, way back with 273.08.
Brown finished skating just before Chen took the ice, so he was able to take in his performance.
“Honestly, it’s incredible,” Brown said. “I feel so lucky that Nathan is a teammate. Obviously, we compete against each other at nationals, but every time we’re out on the international stage, we are teammates and I admire him and it’s unbelievable. He’s pushing the sport in ways that growing up in the sport I could have only dreamed. It’s really impressive and he definitely pushes me to push every other boundary that I can.”
Such is the turbulent nature of 21st century figure skating that this is the first time a U.S. male skater has three-peated as national champion since Johnny Weir did it from 2004-06.
“I’m really happy with the way I skated here,” Chen said. “Nationals is no joke. I’m really proud of myself for all the work I’ve put in.”
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Chen was so on top of his game at these national championships, it was natural to wonder if this unusual skating arrangement might not be a terrific development for him.
“There are definitely positives,” he said. “I actually don’t mind the training atmosphere I’m in. I’m so thankful that Yale has given me the ice time for me to continue pursuing my dreams outside of school. Some competitions have been really good and some competitions have not necessarily been so good under these circumstances, but ultimately I feel like I’m improving competition to competition and that’s what I’m looking forward to do.”
He will head to Japan in March to defend his world championship, which conveniently falls during Yale’s spring break. But that’s a long way off, especially for a freshman. First things first. Yale’s second semester is just beginning, and Nathan Chen has classes to attend.