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What does gold mean to an Olympian’s family? For Nathan Chen, full hearts and a trip to Disneyland

Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang, discusses her family’s sacrifices and a promise she made to her children years ago

(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 • Hey Nathan Chen, you just won the Olympic gold medal in men’s figure skating. What’s next?

He’s going to Disneyland, of course, at least according to Chen’s mother, Hetty Wang. But not for the obvious reasons.

The Salt Lake City skater mentioned to his mother that he might celebrate his success by visiting the amusement park that’s conveniently located about five miles from the house he shares with her in Orange, California. If he does, it likely won’t be because he’s heard dozens of sports stars repeat that catch phrase throughout his lifetime. It will be because of a promise made by Wang many years ago.

It actually started as a promise to Chen’s older brother Tony, who had reached the championship match of a chess tournament. Wang made up her mind that if Tony won, she would take the family to Disneyland as a reward.

One catch: She didn’t tell Tony until after the match was over. He had lost.

“Tony got so mad,” Wang recalled.

“‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’” she recalled him saying. “‘Cause I was going to win!’”

So right there, Wang made her children a deal. If one of them ever won something significant, something at the national or world level, she would make good on her promise and take the whole family to Disneyland.

The wait wasn’t long. When Chen was just 17, he won the first of his six-straight national figure skating championships. His siblings rejoiced, probably as much in anticipation of the forthcoming family trip as celebration of their baby brother, though it’s hard to say for sure.

Chen, however, was having none of it.

“I don’t know why Nathan was so sensitive about it,” Wang said. “He knew that financially [things were] so hard because I was working so many different jobs at one time to make money to support his everything. He knew that financially it would be so hard for me.”

After winning his gold medal last week and gaining redemption over his Olympic debut in 2018, when he entered as a favorite but faltered in his short skate to take himself out of medal contention, Chen opened up about the sacrifices Wang made to get him to the pinnacle of his skating career. When they were living in Salt Lake City, she drove him to ballet, gymnastics and hockey lessons in addition to his skating sessions. She would stay and listen to what the coaches told him, even if they didn’t always welcome her presence. Later, she would take what those concepts work with him one-on-one on his technique.

Then Chen started training part-time with his current coach, Rafael Arutyunyan. Three times a year they would make the 11-hour trek to Irvine, Calif., in Hetty’s Toyota Prius. They would leave in the evening after Wang got off work and pull off partway through so she could get a couple hours of sleep before continuing the trip. When an 11-year-old Chen decided he needed to train with Arutyunyan full-time, she moved with him. She worked multiple jobs at a time, including as a medical interpreter and at a Hertz car rental center, to cover expenses.

“When they were sleeping in a car and came to practice,” Arutyunyan said, “[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.”

But it all paid off in Beijing, the city where Wang grew up.

“Oh my gosh, when the medal ceremony started, I just, oh gosh,” she said. “It was almost 20 years of every single day. You know, the work keeps flashing in my mind.

“Inside my heart was so happy,” she added.

But Wang said it took a community effort and a family effort. Sometimes Chen’s four older siblings were left waiting, at times for hours, while she taxied him around. She remembers specifically that Tony had to wait after his hockey practice for two hours for her to come pick him up because she had taken Chen to something on the other side of the Salt Lake Valley. When she moved with Chen to California, her kids were mostly grown. Still, she felt like she was leaving them behind.

“It still hits me very hard,” she said. “I feel so sorry for other kids.”

She doesn’t regret any of it, but she does mourn the moments she lost. Among them, she said, were family vacations. With Chen’s busy schedule, they couldn’t afford the time, much less the cost.

That, Wang said, is why she wants to finally fulfill her promise from years ago.

“I told my oldest daughter, ‘I feel like I owe my family so much,’” she said. “‘You remember those sad stories. Instead, we’re going to have a family reunion.’”

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