SAN JOSE, Calif. – If there’s a sure bet in a sport in which competitors land jumps of four revolutions on a quarter-inch blade of steel on a bed of ice, it’s 18-year-old Nathan Chen.
The men’s competition at the U.S. national figure skating championships doesn’t begin until Thursday evening, but mark this one down right now: barring injury, Chen is going to the 2018 Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang.
He’s America’s best bet for an Olympic figure skating gold medal, and if he isn’t quite able to achieve such a lofty height, he’s still the nation’s top hope for an individual skating medal at the upcoming Games.
A once-in-a-generation talent, Chen is both a prodigious athlete and a well-trained artist. His jumps are majestic; their number unprecedented.
He became the first man in international skating history to land five quadruple jumps in one 4 ½-minute long program when he did it at last year’s national championships — and he plans to do it again here this week. (He’ll also go for two quads in his short program.)
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Sometimes the numbers run together and it can be hard to get a grasp on how significant this is, so here’s a bit of historical context: in Vancouver in 2010, American Evan Lysacek won the Olympic gold medal with exactly zero quads.
So far this season, Chen has not lost, becoming the only undefeated male skater in the world despite some stumbles here and there.
Figure skating demands artistry as well, and this is where Chen’s unique childhood plays a vital role. At age 7, he entered Ballet West Academy in his native Salt Lake City. There, he took lessons, sometimes as many as six a week, for more than six years. His refined movements on ice today can be traced back to those formative days in the ballet studio. And it’s this exquisite package of powerful jumps and elegant artistry that makes Chen such a force heading into the Olympics.
“I’m happy with the way things have gone,” Chen said on a conference call with journalists the other day. “I’m happy that I’m in this position. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time. I personally remind myself to embrace it.”
In a month, male skaters from around the world will have their sights set on Chen, and he on them. For now, though, a quartet of U.S. men are on his heels. Their goal isn’t to catch him. He’s too far ahead of them for that. Their goal is to simply join him on the U.S. Olympic team.
Jason Brown, Adam Rippon and Max Aaron are all past U.S. champions. There’s also 17-year-old phenom Vincent Zhou, who was second to Chen last year at nationals, then won the world junior title, but has disappointingly struggled so far this season.
That’s the group. Two of those four will join Chen on the Olympic team. Their performances here will play a key role in determining who goes to South Korea, but it won’t be the only calculation.
That’s because the three-day team event comes at the beginning of the Olympics and ends just four days before the men’s event begins. It’s unlikely the United States will want Chen to skate both phases of the men’s team event, the short and long, and risk burning him out for the individual men’s event.
So, in all likelihood, Chen will skate the short program, which is a full week before the men’s individual short program, then hand off to a tried-and-true veteran to skate the men’s team long program.
That skater will most likely be Rippon, 28, or Brown, 23, neither of whom has a quadruple jump they can regularly count on, but both of whom pour on the points with artistry and consistency.
Whatever the case, this much we know: This is Chen’s nationals, and it will be Chen’s Olympics, however it all unfolds.