The rink became Chen's sanctuary, his classroom and his place of perfection. At 10, he burst onto the national scene and received a rousing ovation after skating in an exhibition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash. A star was born that day. This son of Salt Lake City, slicing around the ice confidently at all of 4-foot-5 inches tall, owning his routine.
"Remember that name," commentator Sandra Bezic said over the raucous applause as Chen waved toward the adoring crowd.
In the six years since, Chen's given the figure skating world not a single reason to forget.
His meteoric rise in the sport reached its latest banner moment winning a silver medal at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, on Dec. 10. Chen became the second-youngest Grand Prix medalist ever, and the first U.S. skater to medal at a Grand Prix final since Evan Lyascek and Johnny Weir each did so in 2009. Chen now heads into the 2017 U.S. Championships in Kansas City (Jan. 14-22) as a favorite.
"That was probably one of my best performances of my career," Chen said of the Grand Prix. "It was definitely a good step for me, and hopefully I'll be able to ever improve on that in the future."
And it was one of his cleanest outings. Chen stuck four quadruple jumps in the Grand Prix Final and landed each of his triple axel attempts — which he said is his most difficult jump to land — en route to the historic medal in the long program in France. Chen's free skate score of 197.55 made him the highest scoring American male skater in international competition history.
"From the moment Nathan appeared on the ice before me, it became clear he's a talented, special and most importantly very goal-oriented boy," said Rafael Arutyunyan, Chen's coach. "I believe this can be credited to his parents — their way of bringing him up. What was left to me was to teach him technical skills, and how to be able to execute the necessary stunts in any circumstances, regardless of the pressure."
The stage has proven conquerable, but Chen still admits to nerves, no matter the event. In the short program in France, Chen's routine turned rough. His jumps were off, and the nerves bled into the performance. But, he said, the learning curve comes in forcing himself to bounce back, as he did to earn the silver medal.
"Falling a bit short helped me for the long program, because it kind of put all expectations and results aside, and let me do what I loved doing," he said.
Chen's Grand Prix showing meant more to him considering where he was earlier in the year. Last January, Chen suffered a left hip injury in an exhibition during U.S. Championships, days after becoming the first American to land two quadruple jumps in a short program skate. Inside the hospital, Chen was told he suffered an avulsion injury — where a piece of the hip bone splinters off, becoming detached.
Surgery came about a week after. It took four months for Chen to get back on his feet, then another month or two for him to get back into full skating shape. According to NBC Sports' OlympicTalk, Chen became the youngest American male skater to make the top three at the U.S. Championships in 43 years. Instead of celebrating his top-three placement by skating at World Championships, he had to watch amid fans.
"I was supposed to be there competing — not watching in the stands," he said.
Arutyunyan said from a very young age, he could tell "there is a brain of an adult in this kid's head." Chen, he explained, has been able to digest whatever comes his way — good or bad — and use it to help him improve on the ice.
"I'll give you this — life often tests us, it puts us through examinations, and Nathan gets all sorts of scrutiny from it too," Arutyunyan said. "But this young man walks out of all such pressing situations as the winner. He behaves like a real man. I'm proud that I took part in raising him as a human being and an athlete."
Chen's relationship with Salt Lake City has changed since his young career took flight. He still happily recalls his days at Hawthorne Elementary near downtown Salt Lake and his 7th grade year at West High. But with Arutyunyan based in Southern California, Chen moved to the West Coast when he was 12. Lately, he's been bouncing between Southern California and Michigan, where he also trains with famed choreographer Marina Zoueva.
"It's what I need at the moment," he said.