San Jose, Calif. • It has been eight years since the kid with the bowl cut skated to center ice and bowed in front of a standing ovation. It was that January night eight years ago that a 10-year-old Nathan Chen made the loudest of introductions to the figure skating world, winning the novice category as a preteen, competing to the tune of the classical “Peter and the Wolf.”
It was that same night, when the roars at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., had finally died down, that the Salt Lake City skater proclaimed on national television that he estimated the 2018 Olympic Winter Games would likely be the place where he’d make his Olympics debut.
A prescient declaration, no doubt.
Now 18, the face of U.S. men’s figure skating and coming off a series of dominant fall season performances, Chen enters this week’s 2018 U.S. Championships in San Jose, Calif., a near-lock for the three-man U.S. figure skating crew heading to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.
“I definitely think that there is additional pressure, but it’s reassuring again,” Chen said during a teleconference call last week. “I’ve said this before. I’m happy with that way things have gone. I’m happy that I’m in this position. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time. [I] personally just tell myself to embrace it and enjoy everything.”
Chen’s meteoric rise in the sport the past few years has landed him a role as one of NBC’s marketed big names entering the 2018 Olympics. If you stumble upon a commercial advertising the Games now a month away, odds are you’ll see Chen on a rink.
He has gone unbeaten on the Grand Prix tour thus far, is the reigning U.S. champion from 2017, continued his record-setting ways by becoming the first skater to stick five quadruple jumps in one program and has gone toe-to-toe with the world’s best. He has to get there first, sure, but an Olympic medal is a very real possibility.
“I kind of know what to expect from a pressure standpoint,” Chen said, “and the pressure is usually always pretty similar.”
Chen also knows the feeling of winning on the ice in Pyeongchang, where, in last year’s 2017 Four Continents Championships, he emerged victorious at the Gangneung Ice Arena in South Korea. The spotlight hasn’t shifted. Not even an inch. With more results, more wins, more transcendent quad jumps being landed, Chen continues to up the ante.
The plan remains the same: to attempt two quads in the short program Thursday in San Jose and five in the free skate Saturday. Implementing the number of quad attempts is “upping the risk,” Chen said. He and coach Rafael Arutunian have used past competitions to figure out what the limit is.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” Chen said.
A committee will choose the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic squads based on selection criteria formulated around results from competitions in the past year.
Figure skating veteran Adam Rippon believes that besides Chen, he should be a lock to go to South Korea based on his recent results. He won the 2016 U.S. title and he medaled at his last four Grand Prix events. Rippon, 28, believes this week in San Jose will be his “coronation.”
And as for toppling Chen?
“Everybody is beatable,” Rippon said. “I’ve been skating for so long that I’ve seen people come and go and they do this and they do that.”
While on the world’s radar since that performance eight years ago, this will be Chen’s first U.S. championships where an Olympics spot is officially up for grabs. In 2014, he won the junior U.S. championships at TD Garden in Boston. To get a true feel for the atmosphere, Chen, then 14, stayed and watched the women’s free skate session from the stands.
“Even at that point,” he said, “it was pretty nerve-racking.”
He is now the favorite.
With his barrage of quads in tow, Chen will use these U.S. championships as another measuring point for how he plans to unleash them against the world’s most gifted skaters in Pyeongchang.
“Obviously we want to do the best we can,” he said, “but it’s not the ultimate meet.”
U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS<br>Where • SAP Center, San Jose, Calif.<br>When • Tuesday-Sunday<br>Spots up for grabs »Three men and three women will be chosen bya committee that picks the Olympic squads based on a selectioncriteria formulated around results from competitions in the past year.<br>Schedule • All races are broadcast on NBC and NBCSN (All times MST)<br>Thursday • Championship pairs short program (4:50 p.m.), championship men’s short program (6:30 p.m.)<br>Friday • Championship short dance (2 p.m.), championships ladies’ free skate (4:45 p.m.).<br>Saturday • Championship pairs free skate (12:45 p.m.), championship men’s free skate (4:45 p.m.).