Nathan Chen has never played it safe, and he's not about to start now

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen competes in the Men's Free Skate during the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex Friday, September 15, 2017.

Max Aaron spent the better part of three months by himself on the ice, away from coaches, in his own element, trying to figure out a way to keep up. Last season was an eye-opener for the 25-year-old American figure skater, and not just because he struggled with performances after returning from hernia surgery in 2016.

No, Aaron saw first-hand the changing of the guard across the landscape of the sport. The game, he said, has changed. And it’s being revolutionized by some of the world’s most-talented young figure skaters, including Salt Lake City’s Nathan Chen.

“I got my butt handed to me,” Aaron said, “so either step up or get out.”

Aaron worked tirelessly on incorporating more difficult jumps and spins in his repertoire because at this point, he has to. The best the globe has to offer these days are not using one or two quadruple jumps — in the case of Chen and others, they’re often even doubling or tripling it.

“This is what you’ve got to do to play ball with the big boys now — or I guess the young guys, I should say,” Aaron said.

Chen, 18, is the reigning U.S. national champion, having shattered record books last season by not only becoming the youngest U.S. champ since 1966, but being the first skater to ever incorporate and land five quad jumps in a free skate session. He did so twice at the 2017 U.S. Championships and again later the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at the site of the upcoming 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

“Bow down to Nathan Chen. I have never seen a skater like him,” said former Olympian turned broadcaster Tara Lipinski on the call the night Chen won the U.S. crown earlier this year. “This guy’s it — a little quad machine.”

Fearless in his attempts to push not only himself but figure skating as a whole, Chen became the first skater to attempt six quads at the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in April, but fell in both his short program and free skate events. Chen finished sixth overall. Regardless, Aaron said, Chen’s meteoric rise in the sport hasn’t been lost on either his teammates and opponents.

During that three-month span, Aaron broke down tape of who he considers some of the best to ever do it. He studied four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko, American and 2010 gold medalist Evan Lysacek, two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, and lastly, Chen. Aaron marvels at Chen’s combination of speed and technique on his quad attempts, a rarity, he said.

“He’s already rotating on the way up,” Aaron said. “He’s so quick.”

Figure skating’s first event of the upcoming Olympic season kicked off at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex Thursday at the 2017 U.S. International Classic, with Chen dominating the field on the sheet of ice he grew up skating on. After finishing first in the men’s short program (91.80) and executing one quad, Chen’s free skate proved once more how graceful he is executing one of the most arduous jumps in the sport. He landed three quads and took home the gold in from of a hometown crowd.

Chen has landed five different variations of a quad jump but on one attempt in Friday’s men’s free skate, he had a slight miscue.

“It’s cool,” Chen said of diversifying his program. “I wanted to do that ... I messed up on the quad toe and that will really bug me for a bit.”

The Salt Lake product finished the free skate program with 183.24 points and an overall total of 275.04.

“I’m never surprised to see when he goes out and does what he does,” said Mitch Moyer, senior high performance director for U.S. Figure Skating.

A quad jump, Moyer explained, is more challenging than, say, a triple axel as it’s an added rotation more in the air. During a quad, a skater is rotating over five revolutions per second while airborne, and in the case of Chen, he can be spinning for as long as 0.7 seconds. Couple that with six-to-eight g-force upon landing, not only is it very demanding, it takes explosiveness that Chen possesses.

And the youngster can land any number of different styles of quads depending on takeoff, landing and which side of the skate — toe or edge — is utilized.

“I think it’s like the four-minute mile,” Moyer said. “Everybody said it would be impossible, and all of a sudden, it looked like it could be possible. Now everybody does it. Everybody can’t do quads and everybody’s not going to run a four-minute mile. But the top ones that can do it are now able to do multiple, where before one [quad] was a big thing.”

Four quads at the 2016 U.S. Championships earned Chen a bronze, which preceded his gold that came a year later. Instead of dialing it back to focus more on the rest of his routine, Moyer said, Chen further complicated it for himself — and it paid off.

“He basically changed the sport in the U.S.,” Moyer said. “If you look at all of our U.S. boys, they’re all doing quads, where for a while, they weren’t. The top ones in the world rather are also pushing the envelope now because he made them.”

As the Olympic season continues, and with Pyeongchang four months away, Chen’s taken aim on reintegrating more into his short program and free skate events, to build up to what he was able to land at the tail-end of recent years.

“The goal was to put the quads into the program as time progresses,” Chen said, “and I think [this week was] a great building block for that.”

2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic<br>Men’s free skate 1. Nathan Chen, USA, 183.24 (275.04 total) <br> 2. Max Aaron, USA, 175.50, (261.56 total) <br>3. Liam Firus, CAN, 164.83 (248.29 total) <br>Saturday’s schedule<br> Senior Dance Free Dance: 4:30 p.m. <br>Senior Ladies Free Skate: 6:30 p.m.