Scott D. Pierce: Gold medalist Nathan Chen returns to SLC to give back to the rink that was his second home

Figure skating champion does some reno work for CBS’ ‘Secret Celebrity Renovation.’

(Juma Entertainment) Rob Mariano, Nathan Chen and Sabrina Soto are at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex in Friday's episode of "Secret Celebrity Renovation."

Back in February, Nathan Chen was in the white-hot spotlight of international scrutiny at the Beijing Winter Olympics. With hundreds of millions of viewers around the world watching, the Utah native turned in a flawless performance to claim the gold medal in men’s figure skating.

Having achieved his life’s dream at the age of 22, what’s next for Chen? A trip to Disneyland? A return to the Olympics?

Nah. A trip home to Utah for an appearance on CBS’ “Secret Celebrity Renovation,” which airs Friday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 2.

“I mean, once I heard about this project, I knew how great it would be,” Chen said in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I was just really excited.”

(Juma Entertainment) Rob Mariano and Nathan Chen at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex for an episode of "Secret Celebrity Renovation."

It’s a thoroughly charming hour that will make you laugh and bring a tear to your eye. Chen comes across as the nicest of young men, and “Secret Celebrity Renovation” is an hour of feel-good TV that will leave you, yes, feeling good.

The series takes celebrities to their hometowns to do a renovation for someone who means a lot to them. In Chen’s case, it’s something that means a lot to him — the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, where he spent a lot of time training when he was growing up. “I grew up there,” he said. “It was my second home.”

Chen, designer Sabrina Soto and contractor “Boston” Rob Mariano (“Survivor”) work to renovate an area for figure skaters at the building.

“Since I grew up there and spent so much of my time there, I wanted to see if there’s anything that I could do to sort of help out the rink a little bit,” Chen said. “I figured that it would be nice to have a location just for the figure skaters. And so this was a no-brainer.”

(photo courtesy Alice Chen) A young Nathan Chen, seen here at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, skates with his sister, Alice, and older brother Colin.

Chen, Mariano, Soto and a renovation team convert an old, unused concession stand into a skaters’ lounge and changing area. A former pro shop that had become a little-used storage area is renovated into a lounge for the parents and siblings of skaters. And both areas end up looking amazing.

Chen’s figure skating career has taken him around the world, en route to six U.S. championships, three world championships and three Olympic medals. But it didn’t leave a lot of time for home improvements.

“I’ve never used any power tools. I’ve never even swung a sledgehammer before,” Chen said. “This is definitely a first for me. I was taught a lot on the spot in terms of how to sort of do home improvement.”

In the episode, he swings a sledgehammer, uses a power saw and a couple of nail guns. There was, of course, a renovation/production team there to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.

“Oh, absolutely,” Chen said. “They are all so experienced with these kinds of things. They know what might go wrong, so they could help me structure in such a way that I’m hitting the right spot. That I’m not cutting through electrical cords.”

Soto, Mariano and the rest of the crew “had a lot of experience with renovations and had a lot of experience helping people that have no experience. So it was a really easy and fun project. It wasn’t something that was really challenging, although it had its moments. But it was a lot of fun overall.”

(Juma Entertainment) Nathan Chen and Rob Mariano on the ice at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex during production of "Secret Celebrity Renovation."

Including one segment when Chen and Mariano take to the ice for a bit of hockey — and for a bit of figure skating. Mariano’s one-and-only move isn’t bad for a 46-year-old amateur hockey player; Chen’s move will leave you gasping, even after watching him win the gold medal in Beijing.

(Juma Entertainment) Nathan Chen and "Boston" Rob Mariano at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex.

It’s not like the facility is in major need of repairs. “I don’t think the sports complex is desperate for help. It’s thriving. It’s a wonderful facility,” Chen said. “But I do like the concept of the show — of trying to find things that mean a lot to the people and then do something to help them.”

And Salt Lake City gets several shoutouts. Series host Nischelle Turner calls it “gorgeous,” and there are multiple beautiful shots of Chen driving around town and hiking in the foothills with his mother, Hetty Wang, and Turner.

A homecoming

Chen had to sort through the offers that came in after he won the gold medal. And he was intrigued by “Secret Celebrity Renovation” because it was a chance for him to go home and do something good at a place where he has “so many memories. I spent a good 10 years at that rink. It means a lot to me. I have a lot of little memories — walking through the hallways, spending time on the ice, working with coaches, learning new elements. All of that stuff.

“In fact, my most integral years were spent there. And so it’s something that is very near and dear to my heart. Without it, there would be no chance for me making it into the level of skating that I’ve competed at.”

A big part of the attraction of “Secret Celebrity Renovation” was the chance to spend some time in the Salt Lake City area, something he hasn’t had much time to do since he moved to California to train while he was still in high school. And to meet with three of the coaches who trained him in his youth: Stephanee Grosscup, Karel Kovar and Evgeniya Chernyshova.

And if your heart doesn’t melt when you see video of 3-year-old Chen with Grosscup at his first figure-skating competition ... well, I don’t know what to say about you.

“It was really nice to be able to spend a little bit more time there. Just to be able to see the community and the people that meant so much to me as I was growing up,” Chen said. “I occasionally go back for the Stars On Ice show in West Valley, but this time I got to actually spend time in Salt Lake City and visit all the spots I used to walk around. Stuff like that.”

(Juma Entertainment) Nathan Chen, host Nischelle Turner and Chen's former skating coach, Stephanee Grosscup, in "Secret Celebrity Renovation."

“Secret Celebrity Renovation” isn’t just about the renovation. The celebrities visit people who mean a lot to them, and Chen has reunions with some of his first figure skating coaches.

“The people on the [’Secret Celebrity Renovation’] team try to find individuals that have meant a lot or are special to the main person — I guess, in this case, celebrities,” Chen said.

(And, yes, it was thoroughly charming to hear Chen struggle with calling himself a “celebrity.”)

(photo courtesy Stephanee Grosscup) Former director of skating at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex Stephanee Grosscup with a young Nathan Chen.

“A lot of the people that I spent the most time with were coaches. And so, fortunately, I was able to meet up with my coaches once again,” he said. “Just catch up with them. And it was really nice because I hadn’t seen them in such a long time. And, of course, they were such a big part of my career.”

Kind of surreal

Chen is not unfamiliar with home improvement shows. “I’ve watched a lot of HGTV before,” he said. When he was a kid, he “traveled a lot” with his mother to competitions. “And she was a big HGTV fan,” so they watched that channel in a lot of hotel rooms.

“Secret Celebrity Renovation” isn’t an HGTV show — it’s on CBS — but there are certainly a lot of similarities. And Soto has appeared on multiple HGTV series. But it was “kind of surreal,” he said, “to be, like, part of a show like that myself.”

And when he was in talks to appear on the show, he “spent time researching the show a little bit more. And I love what they do. It’s a very wholesome show. They’re there to really help people and find people that need help.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen listens to the National Anthem as he receives his gold medal for men’s individual figure skating at the Beijing Medals Plaza during the 2022 Winter Olympics on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Back to school

Chen said his life “hasn’t changed too much” since he won the gold medal, “Although I’m training a little bit less right now and I’m focusing more on things like the Salt Lake project. And it’s nice to be in a position where I can do things like the Salt Lake renovation.”

Right now, his plans are “mostly just heading back to school” at Yale University. “That’s the biggest thing for me now,” Chen said. “I’m really excited to go back. And it’s a fun challenge — a challenge that’s very different from skating.”

He spent two years at Yale before taking a leave to train for the 2022 Games, and he’s headed back to Connecticut for his final two years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen performs his routine in the figure skating men’s free skate program at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Chen won the gold medal.

He’s on track to graduate in 2024, which would be two years before the next Winter Olympics. But while some members of the media began speculating about his skating future within minutes of him winning the gold medal — really — Chen isn’t looking that far ahead.

“I’m really excited to be a normal college student,” he said, adding that “it’ll be nice” to be able to go to the rink when he wants to and not be completely focused on training.

“But at the end of the day, I’ll always find myself back at the rink somehow, some way or another,” Chen said. “Exactly to what extent, I’m not sure.”

An autobiography and the future

Chen has an autobiography, titled “One Jump at a Time,” scheduled for release on Nov. 22. And a children’s book expected to be out in 2023.

He’ll also compete on an upcoming episode of ABC’s “Celebrity Family Feud” (tentatively scheduled for Aug. 28), teaming up with his four siblings against a team headed by Simu Liu, the star of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

As for what Chen plans to do in the future — c’mon, he’s 22 years old! He’s got plenty of time to decide.

“I think it’s different, because when you’re training, you just have this one very, very clear goal and a very clear direction. And everything that you do is kind of based around that one thing,” Chen said. “Whereas now, the direction is a little bit less clear. Obviously more opportunities and less direct physical work,” he said, chuckling.

He didn’t rule out competing in his third Olympics in 2026, but he certainly didn’t sound like he’s planning to go to Italy for the Milano Cortina Games. And there is something to be said for going out on top.

(Juma Entertainment) "Boston" Rob Mariano, Nathan Chen and Sabrina Soto on "Secret Celebrity Renovation."

“Having accomplished the goal that I’d set out for for so long, the next part of the process is to figure out exactly what my next goal will be. There’s so many avenues and opportunities,” Chen said. “There’s so many options and so many different variables that come into play. I’m trying to figure out, like, what is it that I also have passion for? What is it that I’m also very excited to do?”

He probably won’t opt for a career in home renovation, however.

“No,” he said with a laugh. “That was fun, and maybe I’ll do it again someday. But not full-time.”

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