A mother’s sacrifice, ‘Rocket Man’ and a little fun: How Nathan Chen earned gold and redemption in Beijing

“I didn’t know if I could make that happen. … It’s amazing,” the Salt Lake Olympian says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen receives his gold medal for men's individual figure skating at the Beijing Medals Plaza during the 2022 Winter Olympics on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Beijing • The ice crystals from the rink in Pyeongchang, South Korea, still clung to the blades of his skates when China started tumbling around in Nathan Chen’s mind.

“Who knows what’ll happen in four years,” he said after a disastrous Olympic debut in 2018. “It would be cool to be able to go to that Olympics.”

What better place to find redemption for a Winter Games that didn’t go at all to plan than in Beijing, the hometown of his mother and biggest supporter? In a perfect world, Hetty Wang would have been in the stands this week surrounded by his grandmother and uncle and other family members as he made her proud — of him, of her life choices and of her sacrifices.

Instead, a mother and an Olympian will have to wait a little while longer to be reunited.

But this time, Nathan Chen will have gold hanging around his neck.

A family’s sacrifices

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen performs his routine in the figure skating men's free skate program at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

How did Rafael Arutyunyan know Chen could become the greatest figure skater in the world? The coach fielded the question less than an hour after Chen, his star pupil, had won the gold medal at the Beijing 2022 Olympics, etching his name with his toe pick in bold letters into the sport’s history. Chen had just delivered a dominant performance and story of redemption, and the air was thick with emotion. Arutyunyan inhaled deeply. Then he painted a picture of just how hefty a tithe Chen paid to the figure skating gods to have the gold hang around his neck Thursday.

So, how did Arutyunyan know? What, 11 years ago, did he see in the fresh-faced kid from Utah, of all places, that made him believe Chen could one day pocket every accolade skating had to offer?

“He started to drive to me from Salt Lake City. Drive. And he did this three times a year, every year,” the California-based Arutyunyan said in the thick Armenian accent he has not shed in the 20 years he has lived in the United States. “And then one day, he said, ‘Mom, if we do not move, I will not make it.’ He’s an 11-year-old boy. So I knew there was a chance.”

Chen and his mother, Hetty, came to him with nothing except the boy’s dream, the coach said. “When they were sleeping in a car and came to practice,” Arutyunyan added, “[his] mom is giving me money in this hand, and I would take [it and put it into] this hand and give it back to him. It means something, right? So I knew it.”

He knew how much Chen wanted Olympic gold. And by Thursday afternoon in Beijing, the rest of the world knew it, too.

By the time he was popping and locking to a remix of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” — wherein the rapper Logic appropriately proclaims “I’ve been runnin’ and gunnin’ for something in due time” — Chen’s dream had, for all intents and purposes, come true.

“I never really thought that I would be able to actually make it this far in my career,” Chen later said. “I’d always dreamed about making the Olympics, but, you know, that’s hard. I didn’t know if I could make that happen. … It’s amazing.”

Cheers in China

Arenas have been mostly sterile during these COVID Olympics, but when Chen stuck his final jump and beamed a wide grin up to the rafters, Capital Indoor Stadium exploded with screams and applause. Much of it came from the athlete section, where his team skate teammates and several friends were sitting. Or rather, as in the case of his close friend and training partner Mariah Bell, standing, hopping and trying unsuccessfully to contain her excitement.

“I haven’t stopped jumping up and down. I’m so happy for him,” she said. “I mean, obviously people can assume that he works hard, but, like, you have no idea unless you see it every day and watch it unfold.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hetty Wang reacts after watching her son Nathan Chen compete in the Men Single Skating Free Skating at Gangneung Ice Arena during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Chen landed a record six quadruple jumps, scoring 215.08.

Few know the work Chen has done like his mother.

But Hetty, who has lived with Chen in Orange County since he moved there from Salt Lake City to train when he was 12, was watching her son from 6,281 miles and 16 time zones away. Strict measures put in place by Beijing 2022 organizers to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have kept out all foreigners and most Chinese nationals.

Just knowing that his mother and family were watching, though, has given the 22-year-old some comfort this week.

“Even when it first was announced it was like, ‘Oh my God, wait, I might have an opportunity to actually be there. Like I might still be competing and have the opportunity. That would be so cool to have like such close family ties to this location.’”

Hetty Wang met Zhidong Chen, a native of the Guangxi region in southwestern China, at a university in Beijing. He was a student of a friend of her father, who was a professor at the university. Zhidong and Hetty also both worked at the university. They were a natural match.

Shortly after earning his medical degree, Zhidong received a visa to study for his doctorate in the United States. In 1988, the couple left China behind. They no doubt did it with trepidation: They knew no one in the U.S. and Hetty spoke no English.

After landing in Carbondale, Ill., and later moving to Riverside, Calif., they settled down in Salt Lake City. Zhidong worked long hours in pursuit of his doctorate at the University of Utah while Hetty cared for their five children — the two oldest girls, two older boys and baby Nathan.

When 3-year-old Nathan saw his brothers playing hockey and sought to find his own place on the ice, it was Hetty who encouraged him to try figure skating.

Encouraged, not forced, Chen emphasized.

“My mom has, since Day 1, been helping me. But I feel like, oftentimes, when you see a Chinese mom who is helping their kid, the immediate association is, like, ‘tiger mom,’” he said. “As a young kid, it’s like you need to also find joy and love in what you do. And I think having that just, like, insane-grind mentality is too much. And I’m really glad that my mom wasn’t really that [way].

“Of course, she was, like, tough on me and of course she pushed me, and I think that was the sort of responsibility and just structure I needed as a kid. But at the same time, especially when I was really young, she made it really fun for me.”

When Chen was 12, he made the decision to train with Arutunian in California. Too young to go on his own, Hetty, now a medical interpreter, moved with him. Chen’s father, meanwhile, stayed back in Utah where he ran a small biotech company and looked after Chen’s brother, who was in high school.

From there, Chen blossomed as a skater. He won his first of six straight senior national titles in 2017 at age 17. At 18 he won his first of three straight world titles and also competed in his first Olympic Games.

We all know how that turned out.

Hetty watched the disaster unfurl from her seat in the Gangneung arena, surrounded by family. Less than 24 hours later, she was there again for the comeback.

“He could give up,” she said at the time, “or he will fight.”

Chen, of course, chose to fight. His free skate was so commanding that he shot back up the standings from 17th to fifth, falling just short of the medal stand.

Chen chose to fight this week too, when he blew past the best short-program score in history, when he grabbed gold with a nearly flawless free skate, when he made his case to be considered the best figure skater the world has ever seen.

Redemption for Nathan Chen

Chen says it was not redemption he was seeking this week in Beijing, that Pyeongchang was just a step in the process. Still, it’s a weight he’ll be happy to shed. No matter what he accomplished during the ensuing four seasons, he’d be asked about how it related to what happened in Korea.

But Chen never lost focus on his goal, the goal he says that caught fire in him during Salt Lake City’s Olympics in 2002. The goal made more meaningful by the fact his next shot at an Olympic medal would be in China, the place his parents emigrated from in 1988.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Chen attempts a jump in the figure skating men’s free skate program at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Chen worked on his physical skills, becoming known as the Quad King. He worked on his artistry. And he worked on his mind, attending Yale for a year and hiring a sports psychologist.

“Heading to the season, I was like, you know, I’ve never really tried [a psychologist] and I don’t really want to leave a stone unturned. So I was like, I’ll just give it a try and see how it goes, and it’s been really helpful.”

So far so good, according to fellow Team USA skater Jason Brown, marveling at Chen’s progression.

“You could tell that as the years went on, these last four years, he’s looking more and more confident and he has gotten more and more sure of himself in the way and the programs that he wants to do and in the direction he wants to go. And it’s just remarkable,” Brown said. “I mean, who can swap out elements like daily whenever he wants, like ‘I’ll just pick this quad, and that quad and that quad.’ And to do them so effortlessly. But also to see him upping his game and defending his titles and not just defending them, but besting himself as he does it. It’s remarkable.”

One of the key lessons from those psychology sessions: Embrace the fun. Part of Chen’s issue in Pyeongchang was that he’d put too much pressure on the moment and forgotten what had captivated him about the sport in the first place. So when he opened this season with a fourth-place finish at the 2021 U.S. Grand Prix, his first loss since Korea, he made the bold decision to scrap his whole routine and regroup around something a bit more colorful.

Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, anyone?

“When we’re training, we’re training programs every single day, you get the same motions every single day,” Chen said of his decision to turn to “Rocketman,” a compilation he’d deployed in 2019 with considerable success, for his free skate. “So it is something that, like, you know, if it’s not fun to skate it, it becomes a chore over a period of time. But this program, no matter what, is always fun for me to skate.”

His short program music, “La Boheme,” brings out emotions on the other side of the spectrum. There are wisps of his own life in the story about four poor bohemians living in Paris. He said he and his mother, Hetty Wang, who moved out with him, often didn’t have the money to pay for his training.

“My mom and I grew up, you know, quite poor. We didn’t really have very much money, and she would just scrap together some dollars and try to pay Raf,” he said. “And Raf obviously knew about the situation. And, thanks to the kindness of his heart, was able to, you know, just continue taking me in, you know, taking as much money as we could provide him. But then at a certain point, he was like, Well, I don’t really need that [money]. I just want to help you achieve the goals that you want and, you know, [I’m] forever grateful just for that support. And yeah, so he would give me the money back sometimes, but I would always try to stick it in his pocket right away.”

He didn’t always succeed in giving the money back, but he finally gave Arutyunyan something the coach says he covets more than money. Chen gave him affirmation that what the coach saw in him way back when wasn’t just fools gold. It was Olympic gold.

He gave his mother something, too.

Even if she wasn’t there in person, Chen could feel Hetty’s spirit in this massive city of 21.5 million people. He said his comfort food is his mom’s dumplings and rice dishes, an approximation of which he can find in the dining hall at the athletes’ village every evening. And every time his bus passed by the Beijing Zoo, he said he remembered his mom taking him there when he was 10 during his only other trip to Beijing.

And when Chen went to thank his coach after winning gold, Arutyunyan reminded Chen that some of his biggest supporters were watching him on TV in San Francisco.

“Thank you, mom,” Chen said into the camera.