Beijing • Thump, thump, thump. The sound echoes off the walls, down the hallway, through the corridors. Thump, thump, thump.
It’s not the sound of Nathan Chen’s heartbeat, though the organ falls in line with the steady beat. Thump, thump, thump.
Occasionally the sound stops for a tick, rarely more than a beat or two, the anticipation of its return suspended in the air. Then it begins anew. Thump, thump, thump.
This is how one of the greatest figure skaters to ever put blade to ice prepares for the seminal moment of his career. This is how he will expel the ghosts of 2018 and the short program that runs like a scar through his resumè. This is how Chen will find his focus prior to Tuesday’s start of the men’s singles competition at the Beijing Olympics.
With a basketball in hand.
“I like the idea of dribbling before practice or competition because it’s like a nice way to, like, stay warm and not really have to think so much about skating,” the Salt Lake City skater said of his routine. “And it takes a lot of coordination and just gets my body going, you know, without having to worry. It just makes me feel comfortable having a ball in my hand to sort of stay grounded.”
After he grounds himself, Chen will need to soar.
The 22-year-old has been deemed “The Quad King” for the number of four-rotation jumps he packs into his routines — he holds the record with eight. And he’ll need to execute several of them if he is to uproot Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and ‘18 Olympic champion, this week and win the gold medal. Hanyu has proclaimed it is his goal for the 2022 Olympic Games to become the first person to perform a quadruple axel in competition. Of the eight traditional figure skating jumps, the axel is only one that has not been performed as a quad in competition, though American Artur Dmitriev Jr. came within a fraction of a rotation of checking it off at the national championships in January.
In addition to the future of figure skating, Chen will be dealing with the past — his past — when he glides onto the ice at Capital Indoor Stadium.
The teenager appeared as impenetrable as a NeverFlat ball when he arrived in South Korea for the 2018 Games, having won two straight national championships, gone undefeated on that year’s Grand Prix tour and set the record for quads landed in a program (five). Then the pressure became too much. Chen imploded during the short program, placing 17th overall.
He returned for the free skate without the tethers of expectation and rallied back to win that event. Yet to finish in fifth place overall and a few steps off the podium was clearly a disappointment.
But Chen doesn’t want to be thinking about any of that. So, he pulls a deflated Wilson basketball, squeeze pump and needle from his bag. Then, he begins his routine.
Pump, pump, pump. Thump, thump, thump.
Chen claims he isn’t very good at basketball. Having never played organized ball, he classifies himself as a “horrible, horrible player.” And while he drops into occasional pickup games with friends, he said he’s not seeing any double teams.
“We’re all very short and very bad,” he said with a chuckle.
He’s a big fan of the game, though. And especially, as a Utah native, he’s a big fan of the Jazz. Chen didn’t exactly grow up watching them on TV — his father and an older brother did, but Nathan wasn’t allowed to join them, according to a Wall Street Journal article. But, he attends games if possible whenever he’s in town.
“Salt Lake is such a huge part of my identity,” Chen, who trains in Los Angeles, said in a 2019 interview with NBA.com. “Having that connection from my true hometown is really dear to me. Especially when I’m not in Salt Lake, it’s important to have something like that that links me to home.”
Chen, who attended Yale last year before taking a break to prepare for the Olympics, was thrilled when the Jazz picked up former Bulldogs player Miye Oni in 2019. But it was Donovan Mitchell’s jersey, not Oni’s, that was hanging in his dorm room. Mitchell’s jersey was also what Chen wore as his post-game uniform for the 2019 U.S. championships, the third of his now six straight national titles.
Chen said he’s ready to see the Jazz get a title of their own.
“I’m looking forward to them doing well in the playoffs,” he said in a January interview with The Tribune. “Hopefully they can do well this year.”
Chen doesn’t only follow the Jazz. He maintains a fantasy team and streams games, or at least tries to keep tabs on the action, even when competing abroad. He watches for entertainment but he also tries to pick up a few tricks and tips he might be able to use in his own sport. Like when a player steps up to the free throw line with the game on the line and all eyes are on him, how does he tune out the outside noise and chaos?
It might be as easy as thump, thump, thump — swish.