Lakewood, Calif. • The letters, in tiny, individual stickers, spell out “Lakewood Ice” on the front of the otherwise plain, white building tucked on a side street behind automotive dealerships, fast food chains and palm trees in this Southern California city that sits next to Long Beach. Inside, peewee hockey banners hang on the walls, along with ads for gym memberships and pest control services and a local Courtyard Marriott.
Frankly, it’s not much to look at.
But if you’re lucky enough to walk inside the rink at the right hour of the day, you will see power and beauty and grace, reaching toward perfection. The sound of a figure skater prepping for flight is something to behold. Then the carving of blade on ice is put to a sudden halt, and, for a few seconds, the athlete visualizes his takeoff, those tightening rotations in midair and the landing as silence descends on a rink.
It is in those same seconds when Nathan Chen is transforming figure skating.
Nobody spirals like Chen. Not as often. Not with the stakes so high.
All of which makes his ongoing push to add more quadruple jumps to his repertoire even more astonishing. A skater is rotating over five revolutions per second while airborne during a quad attempt. Chen can spin as long as 0.7 second in the air during these jumps, with an estimated six-to-eight G-force upon landing.
“Once I landed one flip, I wanted to put that in the program just to see where things went,” Chen said. “I started that, that was cool and it was like, ‘Let’s try to do that again.’ Started doing that in practice, and thought, ‘Why am I not competing it?’ I just kept on building it through that. Now that I have this pretty large repertoire of quads, I can play around with it when I need to.”
American figure skating legend Scott Hamilton understands how this 18-year-old whiz kid from Utah is forcing the sport and its top talents to adapt ahead of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“No one in history is doing what he does,” he said. “He’s so special, and he’s so good.”
A polar bear prince
Long before Chen made figure skating history at 17, before he installed a long program routine with a record five quadruple jumps in it, before he shattered the U.S. Championships record this year, he was just a toddler taking advantage of an Olympic ice sheet in Salt Lake City.
The youngest of five children, born to Chinese immigrants, Chen had an itch to get on the ice because his older brothers played rec-league hockey. His two older sisters, both figure skaters, were part of the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics at Rice-Eccles Stadium. At age 3, Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, promised she’d finally take him to the Salt Lake City Sports Complex to lace up his own skates. It was the end of summer and all of his older siblings went back to school.
“I just took him to the rink,” said Hetty Wang, “because he didn’t have anything to do.”
The Chen family became, as older sister Alice explains, obsessed with the Olympics. Alice and Janice Chen noticed Nathan’s desire to get on the ice. They later did what two older sisters would do naturally with their baby brother during free time. Zipped him up in a giant puffy white coat and went to public skating sessions.
“He looked like a baby polar bear,” Alice said.
Once Nathan got the basics down, his talent was unmissable. As other toddlers were falling over, bawling, waiting for their parents to pick them up off the frozen sheet, Nathan was mastering moves, picking up techniques his older sisters wouldn’t dare do.
“He was always just fearless. Nothing scared him,” Alice Chen said. “He just went for it. It was jump after jump after jump, even as a kid.”
Stephanee Grosscup’s first lesson with Chen went like this: Every skate, every move, every twist or turn, Nathan nailed. He was so shy that he rarely talked when given instruction. He just hit every marker asked. Grosscup was the director of skating at the Sports Complex after the 2002 Games. And every time she wanted to talk to her new pupil about his skating, she had to get down on one knee to look the 3½-year-old in the eye.
“I could tell, without question, that he had the courage of a young warrior,” she said.
Chen just smiled, turned around and skated across the ice on one foot with ease.
“I remember distinctly at the moment, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I have a huge responsibility to this child,’” Grosscup said. “I still remember going home that night, and I thought, ‘I’m having a brush with greatness.’”
Calling his shot
Figure skater Nathan Chen speaking in September: “I’ve always set my sights on 2018 being the first Olympics that I’m eligible for.” pic.twitter.com/lWmWoZ55Jg— Salt Lake Tribune Sports (@sltribsports) November 21, 2017
Nathan Chen is all over.
And, soon enough, he’ll be everywhere.
That’s what happens with phenoms. Revolutionary talent is an addiction to a television audience and a dream for marketers hoping to capitalize on that 2½-week span in which the nation drops what it is doing, flips the channel to NBC and prays for gold. Chen’s image is currently rising high in New York’s Times Square, a signature glass bottle of Coca-Cola in his left hand.
The world doesn’t know Nathan Chen yet. In the coming months, it will.
At 18, he’s not just the next it thing in figure skating, he’s basically there — a prodigy whose ability to fly on the ice has changed the way figure skaters everywhere plan program routines. A star who is single-handedly rewriting how world-class figure skating is not only performed — but also judged.
“The top ones in the world, rather, are also pushing the envelope now,” said Mitch Moyer, high-performance director for U.S. Figure Skating, “because he made them.”
Chen’s effortless smile, bouncy black hair, modest demeanor and artistry on the ice are why he’s out in front in this these final three months before the 2018 Winter Games. Every Olympic cycle there’s a new face, a new potential star ushered to the front of the line by Team USA.
Chen has been on this path for the past decade, a name figure skating fans, analysts and Olympians alike have waited excitedly to see. With that, has come a cascade of lofty expectations, centered around a teen who, after taking the skating world by storm as a 10-year-old novice champion in 2010, called his own shot.
“Which Olympics are we going to see you in?” Chen was asked on live TV.
“Um,” Chen pondered, “2018, I think.”
He also spent 6½ years at the Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City. In a review of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”in 2011, a Salt Lake Tribune review noted that “Madison Young as little Clara and Nathan Chen as her mischievous brother Fritz were marvelous.”
Not long after, Chen relocated to Southern California to train full time with renowned coach Rafael Arutyunyan.
The stress of destiny
The spotlight is on. And it’ll stay on.
“I’ve basically been told that this is what comes with being on this path going to the Olympics and all that,” Chen said.
Figure skating is unlike any other Olympic sport. The drama is organic. From the moment the skater steps onto the ice, even the commentators speak in such a hushed manner that it adds to nervy ambiance. Skaters must outperform the world’s best on the world’s stage, sure, but figure skating is a battle, pitted mainly against oneself.
“You against your doubts, your fears, the outer pressure that you allow to come in,” Grosscup said.
From a young age, Grosscup warned Chen of what lies ahead with stardom — the successes and the strain. Now living and working in Sun Valley, Idaho, Grosscup has had Chen come to the Idaho mountain town to train, practice routines and simply to get away. And every time she sees him or talks to him, she asks the same question:
“How are you managing the bigger picture in the outer world?”
Grosscup’s advice to her star pupil: “Understand when you can give that energy out to the fans, to the media, to various people who want to talk about your skating, talk about what you’ve done, and clearly know when it’s time to get out of the building.”
Hetty Wang acknowledges that her youngest son doesn’t need mom to call or text with reminders anymore. But she still does so, because, as she tells her budding superstar son, one day skating will be done and he’ll be on his own with a new path to pursue.
“Real life and skating is different,” she said. “You can be very good at skating, but real life is a different story. You have to know more people. In skating, you win, you win on the podium, that’s all. After that, you’re done. It’s over.”
Alice Chen said the siblings emphasize normalcy when they’re with their youngest brother. There are times when he’ll consult Alice and Janice about routines and get their input on music choices, but mostly it’s managing the time, allowing Nathan to, frankly, be a teenager. That said, they’re nervous wrecks when Nathan is competing.
“We are just not eating, we are nauseous, I’m nursing my wine and we’re crying,” Alice said. “Nathan can never see this in person, because he’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ He manages to keep it under control, but the rest of us? We’re holding our breath.”
Out of his skates, Chen winds down by driving to the nearby beaches, planting his toes in the sand and watching the waves crash.
“I’m a human, too,” Chen said. “I need time to recover. I need time to decompress and just relax ... just be a kid.”
On the horizon
When Hetty Wang is stuck in the Southern California gridlock, she’s idling in a car that still has a Utah license plate on it. It’s a reminder. “We still consider Utah home,” she said.
The family left when Nathan was 12, knowing that if his prediction at age 10 would ever come to fruition, he’d have to be closer to his coach.
However, Chen doesn’t hesitate to credit the 2002 Salt Lake City Games for setting him down this road.
“This all happened so fast that I haven’t really been able to have it have a chance to really let it sink in,” he said. “I moved to California because I knew I needed something a little bit more to be on this path. Obviously, this is where I wanted to go, this is where my mind was set. But it was just such a daily process that I never really thought about it too much. It’s super, super cool to see where it went.”
The kid who attended Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City is knocking on the door now.
As Chen continues to rise in the world Grand Prix rankings, there is still work to be done. He hasn’t qualified for the 2018 Games just yet. A top-three finish is needed at the 2018 U.S. Championships in San Jose, Calif., the first week of January to get to South Korea.
“Obviously I need to make the team first before I even consider what’s going to happen at the Olympics,” he said.
Hamilton has followed Chen since he burst onto the scene at the 2010 Championships. At each level, he’s seen Chen progress in what he describes as a “quantum leap.” His U.S. crown this year made him the youngest U.S. champ since 1966.
“The way I look at Nathan, he’s won so consistently on every level, that it’s almost like he’s created his own culture of winning,” Hamilton said. “When you expect to win and when you know what it takes to win, you’re probably going to be OK. You’re probably going to be just fine. I expect him to continue to grow, oh yeah.”
In a recent interview with NBC Sports, Russian figure skating legend Yevgeny Plushenko predicted a repeat gold for Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu, but said he expects Chen to be in the mix along with Japan’s Shoma Uno and Spain’s Javier Fernandez.
“Nathan can go toe to toe with anybody because of the wide array he can draw points,” Hamilton said.
Chen believes that, at his best, he is worthy of gold, too, and that the only one standing in his way as the Olympic spotlight gets hotter is Nathan himself.
“Just always be able to beat yourself that day,” he said, “and if it’s not enough to beat someone else, that’s OK, because you still beat yourself and you’re still in the right process to better yourself.”
Plenty more podiums and medals are in the 18-year-old’s future. If this trajectory continues, and this timeline set in motion 15 years ago in a Salt Lake City rink ends up where so many believe it can, then Nathan Chen will be quite the sight.
“When you’re winning,” Hetty Wang tells her son, “that’s your time.”