Gangneung, South Korea • Hetty Wang will make sure her son rolls out of bed. The goal remains to head out by 8 a.m. Traffic in Southern California is hell no matter what the clock reads. She still will drive her youngest of five children, Nathan Chen, to his home rink in Lakewood, Calif., nearly every day. If he needs a power nap, that’s why she will be behind the wheel. If he needs a snack to fuel up properly, that’s why she’ll be behind the wheel.
The last thing she wants is him driving distracted. Hetty Wang wants to get her son to the ice every morning with his mind clear. Sometimes she’ll stay and watch, other times she’ll drop him off, come back around 6 or 7 p.m. and bring him home. They discuss his marathon days on the ice, go to bed, wake up and do it again.
This has been the way — her way — forever.
Soon it will change.
Change comes for everyone, but there is no front-row seat like motherhood.
Hetty told Nathan before this season began that the calendar year that would forever alter both of their lives would be the last they do as a team. They’ve been a duo since he was a toddler, waddling around the ice at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, decked out in puffy jackets, learning to carve around the rink.
This is it. It’s time for her to let him go. She got him this far, pushed him every hour of every day since he could stand upright on his own skates. Year after year, they’ve been together, hurtling toward this moment they shared together with their family here at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Nathan Chen would not be trending on Twitter or rewriting the history of figure skating without Hetty Wang. There was, in fact, something different about her youngest child. Parents see their kids as limitless, a gift to not only themselves but to the world. Her voice hoarse and throat sore from cheering Nathan’s record-breaking six-quad routine in the men’s free skate, Hetty laughed before answering the question, because it makes sense in retrospect.
“I don’t know why I just put so much attention onto him,” she said. “He was the youngest.”
All of her children are different, Hetty said, unique and special and crucial to her life in their own way. She helped them spark their own interests, but when she would pull them toward a certain sport or hobby, they wouldn’t all budge. Some resisted mom like all kids do.
“I pulled,” she said, “and Nathan moved.”
And she made it fun.
Hetty made up games for Nathan to follow and mimic on the ice as a kid. From Day 1 in skates, she just wanted to see a result. Time and time again, Nathan delivered, and then some. Alice Chen, Nathan’s older sister, recalls taking the TRAX red line every day from West High School downtown toward the Sports Complex. The family would watch Nathan skate, then go home after it ended.
“I just think of my mom and Nathan literally living at the rink,” she said. “That was our normal life.”
Hetty signed him up for skating, gymnastics, piano, ballet, woke him up before the sun rose to get to the rink, took him to Hawthorne Elementary then to Ballet West Academy at night, sometimes until 9 p.m. If she heard what the ballet instructors asked Nathan to do, Hetty paid such close attention that if he didn’t perform correctly, she’d repeat it to Nathan herself until he got it.
“She’s not just dropping him off, she’s there, she’s present, she’s sat in those bleachers,” said Peter Christie, Ballet West’s former academy director.
“It was hard to scream over her sometimes,” added Cati Snarr, Nathan’s former instructor.
Hetty never envisioned the Olympics as the end goal. Not a medal or a podium, either. Since he was little, she told her youngest son to find the joy in what he enjoys doing, and if it’s worth it to him, stick to it. As it turns out, it was skating, where the results she always wanted to see never were lacking.
“My mom has been so integral to each of our upbringings,” Alice Chen said, “but I think when it came to Nathan, even now they are especially close because they spend all day, every day together. They, together, have worked so hard to get here. Obviously we credit Nathan for going out and doing what he’s done, but he’s had my mom’s support 100 percent throughout this entire thing.”
They relocated, leaving the place they still call home in Salt Lake to move to Southern California so Nathan, then 12 years old, could fulfill the endless promise he showed as a young skater over a decade ago. Hetty’s husband and Nathan’s father, Zhidong Chen, moved to the U.S. from China in 1988 and eventually attended the University of Utah to do graduate work in pharmaceuticals.
“My parents did not come to the U.S. with much,” Nathan said. “They had a lot of hardships.”
They laid down roots in Utah and eventually uprooted them to put Nathan on this track. That’s how much belief they had in their son. While it might not seem like it at times, Hetty helped make skating seem like anything but a chore, Nathan said.
“All the credit,” he said, “should be given to her.”
Before the tremendous free skate program that captivated these Olympics, Hetty told the family here in attendance to back off. She knew her son needed a break after the short program that eliminated hopes of a medal, after the pressure caved. A break from everything and everyone. Family members wondered if they should call or text him. Hetty said no.
“He had to do what he wants, not what everybody else wants,” she said. “If Nathan needs us, he will call us.”
Hetty was in her same seat less than 24 hours later, on the first row of section 211 near Gate 4 inside Gangneung Ice Arena. Her mind was empty. Every competition, she said, she has a different mood. Not this time. She wasn’t nervous or excited. She couldn’t think of anything else but this.
“He could give up,” she said, “or he will fight.”
Nathan Chen busted down the door, landing a figure skating record six quadruple jumps, earning the highest score he’s ever had of 215.08. She burst out of her chair, no longer contained to the front-row seat that forced her to watch behind a large white metal railing. The score held long enough that it took the second-to-last skater to bump Chen off the podium.
Hetty was seated then, her palms pressed together, fingers intertwined, as she stared up at the giant screen. Her boy fought, and to Mom, that’s all that mattered. All those years falling and finding a way back up, of Hetty telling him he could when maybe he thought he couldn’t, encapsulated in one 4-minute-plus routine.
Well, the 2022 Olympic Winter Games are in Hetty’s hometown of Beijing. But she won’t be the one pushing. Not then. Nathan knows how hard and flawlessly he must skate not only to get back here, but to potentially write the fairytale ending. The decision on the next four years, she said, is his. For now, Hetty still has work to do, more wake-up calls and rides and in-case-of-emergency snacks to bring to the arena in Lakewood to help get him ready for the 2018 world championships in Italy.
“He has one more month to go,” she said.
It’s a swan song she always knew was coming. All moms do.