Nathan Chen is flying high, and flying blind.
The Salt Lake City native won his fifth straight national men’s figure skating championship earlier this month in Las Vegas. He now has more consecutive titles than anyone except Dick Button who won seven from 1946-1952.
The victory only added to the legacy of one of, if not the, best men’s skater in the history of the United States. In 12 individual competitions over the course of 35 months, while pushing the boundaries of artistry and power, Chen has not been toppled figuratively or literally. Since 2018, he has landed a stunning 129 straight jumps of all types in competition without a fall, according to a report by NBC Sports reporter Phil Hersch. His opening leap the final Sunday at nationals was as close as he has come to hitting the ice in that stretch. Both hands touched the ice as Chen landed a quad lutz, one of five quads he’d built into his program, but it was not deemed a fall by the judges.
“Whenever mistakes happen in a program,” the 21-year-old said, “it’s generally I just snap right out of it and try to figure out what happened and then move on.”
When it comes to what he and his fellow competitors will be moving onto after nationals, though, Chen and the rest of the skating world is a little less assured.
On the calendar, it’s the world championships, set for March 22-28 in Stockholm. Yet it’s widely expected to fall by the wayside under the threat of COVID-19, following the path of the 2020 world championships and most major skating events over the past year.
The world championships are supposed to be where a country’s allotment of Olympic skaters is determined. It also functions as one of several athlete selection events for U.S. Figure Skating. If worlds is canceled, it would be the third of 10 designated selection events pulled from the calendar this Olympic cycle, with more hanging in limbo.
“Heading into worlds, of course, we don’t really know if that’s going to happen,” Chen said. “If that doesn’t happen, what’s the selection going to look like for the Olympics? Will it be a worlds that is postponed or is it going to be in, like, Oberstdorf [Germany, the site of the canceled 2020 championships] or something? So it’s just like a lot of questions that I don’t really have the answer to right now, and I don’t think anyone really does.”
Without worlds in their sightlines, though, athletes would be able to begin focusing on the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, which are barely more than a year away. Even they are shrouded in some uncertainty, however. Rumors are swirling around the probable cancelation of the Tokyo Games this summer as the world battles another surge in the coronavirus and that, by association, casts a shadow over the winter games.
The Olympic test event, scheduled for Beijing last December, was canceled by the International Skating Union. So, even if the games go on, skaters won’t know what to expect at Capital Indoor Stadium until the Games begin.
“I would love to have been able to go to Beijing prior to the games, but truthfully speaking, you know, it’s not the biggest deal,” Chen said. “We go to a lot of competitions never having been to that arena before, never even having been to the city before. So this won’t be a new experience for any of us.”
He noted, as well, that time on a venue’s ice doesn’t necessarily correlate with a strong performance. As an example, Chen pointed to his short program at the 2018 Winter Olympics. He’d skated the test event at Gangneung Ice Arena in Pyeongchang, but that didn’t save him from disaster. He tumbled twice and made zero clean landings during his short performance, ruining his chance at any medal.
Chen pulled himself up and won the long program the next day to finish fifth overall. Later that year, he won the Grand Prix Final, starting a streak of 129 jumps with no falls and no losses.
It would be understandable, then, for Chen to obsess over getting an opportunity to compete in the 2022 Olympics and sweep that moment from his legacy. But he’s learned a few things during the pandemic, with all its ups and downs, stops and starts. He’s hopeful for the future but also happy with the present.
Chen is flying high right now, and he doesn’t plan on letting anyone or anything bring him down.
“I still would love to improve and be better. But truthfully, you know, I’m really happy with where I am and what I’ve already done,” he said. “So whether or not I get that title at the Olympics is not going to define me as a person.”