Pushing the threshold of men’s figure skating can take a toll on a person. The same can be said for the rigors of second-year studies at an Ivy League university. The one-two combo caught up to Nathan Chen earlier this month.
Chen’s skating has been on the ascent since the 20-year-old landed a record six quadruple jumps in a single program in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He followed that up at the 2018 World Championships, when he became the first skater to land eight quadruple jumps in a competition. Last March he became the first American to win back-to-back world championships since Scott Hamilton’s streak of four from 1981 to 1984. Chen also won two more Grand Prix Finals. In the second of those, just last month in Italy, he was awarded the highest free skate score (224.92) and highest combined score (335.30) in sport history.
This week at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., though, Chen will be pulling back. Seemingly untouchable by his competition of late, the Salt Lake City skater was grounded by a flu-like illness that he said affected about two weeks of his training. So, instead of working even more quads into his program, he said he plans to skate a less difficult program, perhaps even dropping the quad lutz he successfully performed twice in Grand Prix competitions this fall.
“At this point in time I’m just trying to get myself back to 100 percent,” Chen said during a press conference Friday. “That being said, I don’t think trying to push technique is necessarily my goal here. (It’s) more just to maintain my body, maintain my health and prepare myself for the second half of the season as well.”
Of course, a milestone is sitting on the table, and Chen no doubt is eager to grab it. A win would make him the first to claim four straight national titles since the International Skating Union in 1990 did away with compulsory skating — the tracing of set figures that made overall results more predictable. Brian Boitano, the last of nine men to win at least four straight U.S. titles, reigned from 1985 to 1988.
Jeremy Abbott was the last to win four national titles, with victories in 2009, ’10, ’12 and ’14. Todd Eldredge won six titles between 1990 and 2002.
“It’s awesome to be in a position to make that happen. If it does, awesome,” Chen said of winning four straight. “In competitions, I’m driven by wanting to medal, wanting to stand on top of the podium. But that's based on how my results are scored and how other skaters do. I don’t like to think about things like that. The fact is, other guys have done that and it would be great to follow in their footsteps.”
Even with a scaled-back program, Chen’s chances of winning this week are high. He has won his first three national titles by margins of 55, 41 and 58 points.
His closest competitor has been Vincent Zhou, who twice finished second behind Chen and took bronze in 2018. Zhou, 19, didn’t compete at all this fall while focusing on his own studies as a freshman at Brown University. He announced earlier this month that he plans to make his 2019-20 debut at nationals with new coaches in tow while also taking a gap year from Brown.
Chen said he doesn’t know what to expect from Zhou, having not seen him yet this season. The Yale sophomore can, however, attest to the difficulties of juggling school and skating.
“Classes are getting more and more difficult. They’re asking for more and more of your time to study and finish homework assignments,” said Chen, who is majoring in statistics and data science. “My classwork also requires more computer time and that requires sitting more, and it's a lot harder to get back on the ice.”
His body of work so far this season hasn’t reflected that, but his performance this week just might. Chen said he hopes to make the most of skating a less difficult program and to apply any lessons he can glean from it toward making greater leaps and bounds in his push toward the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“Every year I get to have the experience to learn how to adapt to the competition. Experience helps prepare me for competition, to adapt to competition,” he said. “Having both really great experiences and not really great experiences has helped me with that. That’s what’s helped me this season. I’m excited to see what nationals brings me and hopefully worlds as well.”
U.S National Figure Skating Championships
When: Monday through Sunday (men’s short program, Saturday at 11:30 a.m.; men’s free skate, Sunday at 12:30 p.m.)
Where: Greensboro, N.C.